The Dravidian language family consiting mainly of Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu spoken by 220 million people across southern India and other countries is nearly 4,500 years old, finds a study.
The results showed that of the four main Dravidian languages, with literary traditions spanning centuries, Tamil reaches back the farthest.
But unlike Sanskrit, there is continuity between its classical and modern forms documented in inscriptions, poems and secular and religious texts and songs.
The Dravidian language family, consisting of about 80 varieties, is crucial in understanding the prehistory not only of the subcontinent but of Eurasia as a whole, the researchers said.
"The study of the Dravidian languages is crucial for understanding prehistory in Eurasia as they played a significant role in influencing other language groups," said Annemarie Verkerk of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
The study, published in Royal Society Open Science, used data collected first-hand from native speakers representing all previously reported Dravidian subgroups.
However, neither the geographical origin of the Dravidian language nor its exact dispersal through time is known with certainty.
Thus, the consensus among the research community is that the Dravidians are natives of the Indian subcontinent and were present prior to the arrival of the Indo-Aryans (Indo-European speakers) in India around 3,500 years ago.
It is likely that the Dravidian languages were much more widespread to the west in the past than they are today, the study noted.
For the study, the team made a detailed investigation of the historical relationships of 20 Dravidian varieties.
The researchers used advanced statistical methods to infer the age and subgrouping of the Dravidian language family about 4,000-4,500 years old.
This age also matches well with inferences from archaeology, which has previously placed the diversification of Dravidian into North, Central and South branches at exactly this age, coinciding with the beginnings of cultural developments evident in the archaeological record.
Future research would be needed to clarify the relationships between these branches and to examine the geographical history of the language family, the researchers said. (IANS)