Homer’s ‘Iliad’ codex from approximately the late 5th-early 6th century A.D. Image: Public Domain
Evolutionary theorist Mark Pagel (University of Reading) and his colleagues, geneticist Eric Altschuler (Univ. of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey) and linguist Andreea Calude (also of Reading as well as the Sante Fe Institute in New Mexico) have dated one of literature’s most ancient works, The Iliad, to 762 B.C. “give or take fifty years.”
You might be surprised to learn that scientists have applied the same techniques used to track how genes mutate to dating the codex. “Languages behave just extraordinarily like genes,” Pagel says. “It is directly analogous. We tried to document the regularities in linguistic evolution and study Homer’s vocabulary as a way of seeing if language evolves the way we think it does.”
Pagel and his team explained to Inside Science how the process worked:
“[We] used a linguistic tool called the Swadesh word list, put together in the 1940s and 1950s by American linguist Morris Swadesh. The list contains approximately 200 concepts that have words apparently in every language and every culture, Pagel says. These are usually words for body parts, colors and necessary relationships like “father” and “mother.”
[Then we] looked for Swadesh words in the Iliad and found 173 of them. Then, [we} measured how they changed.
[We] took the language of the Hittites, a people that existed during the time the war may have been fought, and modern Greek, and traced the changes in the words from Hittite to Homeric to modern. It is precisely how [we] measure the genetic history of humans, going back and seeing how and when genes alter over time.”
The other thing that researchers have determined is that a single person named “Homer” is unlikely to have existed. Brian Rose, professor of classical studies and curator of the Mediterranean section at the Univ. of Pennsylvania Museum, says “it is clear the Iliad is a compilation of oral tradition going back to the 13th century B.C.” Rose contends that The Iliad is an “amalgam of lots of stories” — about Helen, Odysseus, Agamemnon, Ajax, and others — that “focused on conflicts in one particular area of northwestern Turkey.”
While researchers are unsure about the authorship of The Iliad, they are relatively certain that the city of Troy actually existed and think they know where it was located, thanks to the nineteenth century work of two archaeologists, Heinrich Schliemann and the Frank Calvert, who excavated the Citadel of Troy and found evidence of a battle. Schliemann and Calvert dated the conflict to the twelfth century b.c. but whether the artifacts are from the epic war described in The Iliad or are the remnants of a civil war remains unclear.