The Dravidian language family, spoken in the southern and central parts of the Indian Subcontinent, originated some 4,500 years back. These languages are now spoken by over 220 million people.

A new analysis was carried out by an international team of researchers including scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, reports The team used first-hand data collected from native speakers of these languages.

The study defines South Asia as the region that stretches east from Afghanistan till the Bangladesh. Over 600 languages are spoken in this region and they belong to six large "language families" that includes Dravidian, Indo-European, and Sino-Tibetan, notes the report.

The Dravidian language family has about 80 language varieties that consists of both languages and dialects. These are spoken and used by over 220 million people from central and south India, as well as neighboring countries, notes the report.

Spread of language
Map of the Dravidian languages in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal adapted from Ethnologue [2]. Each polygon represents a language variety (language or dialect). Colours correspond to subgroups (see text). The three large South I languages, Kannada, Tamil and Malayalam are light red, while the smaller South I languages are bright red. Languages present in the dataset used in this paper are indicated by name, with languages with long (950   years) literatures in boldKolipakam et al. A Bayesian phylogenetic study of the Dravidian language family. Royal Society Open Science

Of them, four major languages – Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, and Tamil – have literary traditions that span several centuries. Of the four languages, Tamil has been found to be the oldest and it is one of the world's classical languages. The report points out that while Sanskrit, another classical language from South Asia, has a discord between its ancient and modern formats, Tamil has a continuity that has been well documented in inscriptions, poems, and other literature.

"The study of the Dravidian languages is crucial for understanding prehistory in Eurasia, as they played a significant role in influencing other language groups," explains corresponding author Annemarie Verkerk of the Max Planck Institute. The report also points out that two aspects of Dravidian languages- their geographical origin and their dispersal through time is still unknown.

However, there is a consensus within the research community that the Dravidian people are the natives of the Indian Subcontinent and were there long before the arrival of the Indo-Aryans around 3,500 years ago. The research has found that the Dravidian languages were a lot more widespread in the west than they are today.

"Here we have a really exciting opportunity to investigate the interactions between these people, and other cultural groups in the area such as Indo-European and Austro-Asiatic on one of the great crossroads of human prehistory," states author Simon Greenhill of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.