Thursday, 4 April 2013

Pama-Nyungan and the Language/Farming Dispersal Hypothesis

Australian aboriginal life is almost nightmarishly difficult to find out about.  There are a few popular books on the subject, but these tend to treat indigenous Australians as noble savages or portray ancient Australia as a place with little meaningful cultural variation.  The traditional image of Australian aborigines boils down to little more than living in deserts, foraging for food with boomerangs, killing kangaroos with spears, and maybe having the odd dance.  As there are few accurate popular works dealing with the actuality of Australian life prior to Europeanisation, it is unlikely that this popular image will change.  Even the academic works are hard to get hold of or prohibitively expensive, and even if you live in Australia it is easier to find books on the prehistory of Indo-European than it is to find out about Pama-Nyungan (see below).

But in fact there are plenty of fascinating aspects of indigenous Australian life that deserve greater appreciation.  It seems as if it has always been quite a diverse place in terms of human culture.  Although all Australians prior to the arrival of Europeans and Makassarese in the late eighteenth century relied on foraging, there are lots of different kinds of foraging strategies and lots of ways in which foragers can eke out a living.  We shouldn't for a moment think that Australians were uniform across the seven-and-a-half-million square kilometres of the island-continent or their (probably) 50,000 years of human history.  In fact, a high level of diversity appears to have been present from the beginning, with riverine, lacustrine, montane, and marine environments all seeing some form of exploitation at human hands by 40,000 year BP (although the desert environments we most closely associate with Australia's first people were almost certainly uninhabited until much later on).  Add in Tasmania and the Torres Strait and we're suddenly confronted with an even greater diversity of attitudes, influences, and environments (including the famous taboo on eating fish among indigenous Tasmanians).

  So Australia has always been diverse, with moth hunters and palm-nibblers and lake fishermen.  But the mid-Holocene, around 4,000 years ago, is when things get really interesting, at least from my perspective, with the development of a tradition of making backed unifacial blades that swiftly spread across the continent.

You may have noticed that I have an especially strong interest in the intersection between archaeology and linguistics, and that I am interested in the spread of language families across the earth.  You may also be aware that I am somewhat critical of the theory that language families inevitably spread with agriculture, the so-called language/farming dispersal hypothesis, whose principal proponents are Peter Bellwood and Colin Renfrew.  It is true in some instances that language families correlate with or are enabled by the spread of agriculture, as is probably true of Austroasiatic in mainland southeast Asia, of Sino-Tibetan (or Tibeto-Burman) in China and the Tibetan Plateau, and of most of the Niger-Congo expansions in Africa (the latter is somewhat controversial, as Roger Blench has suggested that the initial expansion of Niger-Congo was under way before agriculture came to the fore in West Africa - but I digress).  It is probably not true in other instances: Altaic, Indo-European, and Iroquoian seem to have relied on other mechanisms.  Uto-Aztecan is a trickier one, and much debated (pfft, as if Indo-European isn't...).

It's also clear that languages can spread in other ways: English is not a global language because of the spread of agricultural techniques, at least not primarily, and the Romans bought or commandeered so much wheat from Egypt and Spain that they barely developed any agricultural innovations of their own despite spreading their language across Europe and north Africa.  What matters is that people in other groups have a reason to start speaking the new language, or that the group whose language is being propagated has sufficient strength to annihilate and replace the original population - not whether they have a special grain or tuber.  The correlation with agriculture is guaranteed to be weak.

The best example against the language/farming dispersal hypothesis comes from Australia.  Pama-Nyungan languages once covered about 7/8 of Australia's territory, including the entire east, west, south, and centre.  Pama-Nyungan is a well-supported genetic entity and its languages show close relationships to one another, demonstrating that this is a family that spread relatively recently - in the mid-Holocene, perhaps, at around the same time as Indo-European.  Only Tasmania and Arnhemland preserved non-Pama-Nyungan languages, and even that latter swampy, tropical land was penetrated by Yolngu, a Pama-Nyungan language on the northern tip.

Modern Pama-Nyungan speakers are also much more likely to carry the HTLV-1 retro-virus than non-Pama-Nyungan speakers, and as this is inherited, at least in part, we are probably looking at the expansion of a group of people - or at the very least we can say that the speakers of Pama-Nyungan languages share a high degree of inherited material.  This means that the expansion must have been more like true migration than advection, although of course the reality of it was probably quite complicated (as it is with any language family).  Just so you're in no doubt, this means that the Pama-Nyungan expansion is attested to by both linguistic and biogenetic evidence.

Now, Australians didn't develop agriculture before Europeans arrived, so we can't link the expansion to the domestication of any grains or animals or whatever else.  This is one of the few language family expansions that we can say right off the bat had absolutely no connection to agriculture.  The trouble is, the model proposed by linguists is a little old and as far as I can tell, it doesn't fit perfectly with the archaeological evidence as we now have it.

The theory proposed by linguists Nicholas Evans and Patrick McConvell goes like this:  In the mid-Holocene, there was a major intensification of resource exploitation.  Cycads and other seed-bearing plants were harvested in intensive ways with the growth of a delayed-return economy across much of the continent.  This is linked to the development of backed unifacial blades and points, which is certainly useful for archaeologists investigating the spread of the family as these are very durable entities.  The overlap between unifacials and Pama-Nyungan is almost perfect, and unifacial blades are absent archaeologically in almost all non-Pama-Nyungan-speaking territory.

So, they claim, Pama-Nyungan speakers may have had an economic advantage even when moving into densely-populated areas, like riverine central Queensland (which was far from sparsely populated in the mid-Holocene), albeit one not quite comparable to the advantage bestowed by agricultural production, as a result of their superior tools and their greater surplus.  This in turn provided the ability to hold massed gatherings for ritual purposes, enhancing the prestige of the group and thereby leading to the adoption of Pama-Nyungan languages by non-Pama-Nyungan-speaking peoples.

Evans and McConvell also link Pama-Nyungan to a complex of outward-looking, inclusive, social traits.  They believe that Pama-Nyungan speakers emphasised patrilineal descent, in contrast to their non-Pama-Nyungan neighbours; that they were more likely to engage in group exogamy, marrying people in tribes other than their own; and that they preferentially linked themselves and others in ritual gatherings and song cycles, emphasising links across the landscape and deep into the past.  (This is incidentally similar to the manner by which Arawakan is thought to have propagated itself in South America.)

The Urheimat of proto-Pama-Nyungan is hypothesised to have been in Queensland between 5-3,000 years ago, with the initial expansion occurring down the east of Australia over subsequent millennia.  2-1,000 years ago, a further expansion occurred, this time into the desert and the west of the continent.  The recent expansion into this area is well-attested by the linguistic data, especially the similarities across the languages of desert Australia (including such widespread languages as the Western Desert language).

Anyway, that's the Evans and McConvell model.  Unfortunately - unfortunate because it's such a neat and elegant model - the archaeological situation isn't quite right.  While Pama-Nyungan languages certainly correlate with unifacial blades, the intensive exploitation of resources reported for the mid-Holocene appears to have been an illusion - or, rather, its sudden appearance is an illusion, with the intensive exploitation of seed-bearing plants and the likely growth of ritual gatherings occurring many thousands of years earlier in the Pleistocene.  Delayed-return economies were presumably not new in Australia and the Pama-Nyungans would have had no necessary advantage if they had focused on intensive exploitation of cycads or similar products.

Given the correlation with unifacial blades, another model of Pama-Nyungan can be proposed.  We could even say that any model that accounts for the spread of unifacial blades also accounts for the spread of Pama-Nyungan due to the obvious overlap in both space and time between the two phenomena.  Fortunately, we have such a model, one proposed by archaeologist Peter Hiscock.  This is essentially a risk reduction model: backed unifacial blades, which are exceptionally versatile, were developed and used by native Australians as they provided a means of reducing the risk inherent in subsistence foraging.

This was likely linked to climate change.  Precipitation in Australia was lowest between 4000 and 2000 years ago (ie, the mid-Holocene) as a result of globally changing weather patterns (including the development of what we now call the El Niño effect).  Drier and more variable climatic conditions came to dominate.  This made foraging especially difficult and subsistence must have been threatened, with resources more widely scattered and much less predictable.  Backed unifacial blades - about as versatile as a Swiss army knife in the right hands, capable of butchering animals, scraping vegetables, you name it - conferred a distinct advantage on those who used them.  They weren't projectile points but rather all-round tools for gleaning a living from the land.  They were also economical tools, easily and efficiently knapped in large quantities.  There appears to have been a trend of cost reduction in producing blades at this time, regardless of what kind they were.  Blades of all kinds (not just unifacials) from across the continent show signs of repeated re-sharpening.  This independently testifies to the need for economy and efficiency in tool design in the mid-Holocene.

It seems that far from Pama-Nyungan spreading due to the development of a more outward-looking culture related to the intensive exploitation of cycads and the consequent growth of ritual gatherings, it was instead caused by a less edifying motive: the need for survival in a land swiftly becoming harsher, tougher, and less predictable.  This would also make sense of the fact that Pama-Nyungan languages correlate strongly with identifiable biogenetic features, assuming the backed unifacials were spread across the landscape by a migration of Pama-Nyungan speakers.

Either way, in Pama-Nyungan we have one of the only uncontested examples of a language family's expansion occurring outside of an agricultural or pastoral setting.  It shows that non-agricultural expansions are possible, and that connecting agricultural spread to language family is not always appropriate - certainly not inevitably appropriate.  We don't need to connect Austronesian to the first introduction of agriculture to island southeast Asia and we don't need to connect Indo-European to Neolithic Thessaly or Mehrgarh.  Agriculture clearly isn't the only motive for the spread of a language family nor its adoption by other groups of people, and instead we should think about language adoption in terms of plausible reasons for action, and about the migrations and diffusions of human beings in terms of the same.

Post-scriptum:  It is possible that Evans' and McConvell's views have changed since the publication of their article in Archaeology and Language II in 1998, but it is difficult to find out more without owning a copy of their more recent text on the subject, Archaeology and Linguistics: Aboriginal Australia in Global Context (which, as far as I can tell, corroborates the model outlined above, although I can't absolutely verify that without another trip to the Bodleian library).

The following texts have been most useful to me in understanding the issue:

Hiscock, Peter. 2006.  'Blunt and to the point: changing technological strategies in Holocene Australia'.  In I. Lilley (ed.).  Archaeology of Oceania: Australia and the Pacific islands.  Oxford: Blackwell.

 ---------- 2008.  The archaeology of ancient Australia.  Routledge:  Abingdon.

McConvell, Patrick.  1996.  'Backtracking to Babel: the chronology of Pama-Nyungan expansion in Australia'Archaeology in Oceania 31: 125-144.

McConvell, Patrick and Evans, Nicholas.  1998.  'The enigma of Pama-Nyungan expansion in Australia'.  In Blench, Roger, and Spriggs, Matthew.  Archaeology and language II: archaeological data and linguistic hypotheses.  Routledge: Abingdon.


  1. I agree that the language/farming dispersal hypothesis has not been sufficiently demonstrated. However, it presents an approach to language study that is profitable, especially as related to some grains and roots.

    Rice grain formed the basis of weight measurement from East Africa to Sulawesi in Indonesia. On Madagascar, the the weight of one grain of rice is called vary, which corresponds to the Swahili wari and to the Dravidian verasu. The Hebrew word for rice is orez and Arabic ruz and these share the RZ root with Dravidian. The Dravidian word reflects the written records of commercial weight based on rice.

    Sulawesian terms for slash and burn cultivation are of East African origin. The word trematrema is used in Northeast Betsimisaraa to refer to a one to three year old slashed-and-burnt field. It is related to the Swahili word tema, ‘to cut’, and its redoubled form tematema, ‘to slash, to chop. This technique is used by Sulawesians who practice "dry rice" planting.

    Linguistics suggests in this cases that rice went from Africa to Indonesia and back. Rice is returning to Africa as a significant grain commodity. Here is the most recent news:

    "In Ghana’s Volta river valley, a comprehensive project has been launched to expand Africa’s capacity for the cultivation of rice – a stubbornly unpredictable commodity that is critical to the continent’s continued food stability.

    Launched two years ago, the project, known as Gadco, brings agricultural experts from Brazil, where rice is successfully grown in conditions similar to Western Africa, to Ghana. This will help local farmers learn to cultivate rice.

    Over decades, there have been countless attempts have failed to successfully grow rice in Sub-Saharan Africa, mainly due to poor management and a lack of funding. However, thus far Gadco appears to have finally managed to develop rice production in Africa."
    (From here:

    Are you familiar with the Red Ochre Men of Australia? Talk about "nightmarishly difficult" to study!

  2. African rice and Asian rice are two distinct species and the common name used to refer to them in many languages - including Arabic and Hebrew, of course - is misleading. Rice entered Indonesia probably as a result of migration from neolithic southeastern China/Taiwan, associated with speakers of Austronesian languages. It is also notable that migration to east Africa from Indonesia is much more securely known than any Holocene migration from Africa to Indonesia, attested to especially by the presence of Austronesian languages on Madagascar. It was likely Austronesian-speaking people from what is now Indonesia who brought bananas and Asian rice to Africa, and if there is any overlap in terminology for swidden agriculture, it is much more likely that it would go from Indonesia to Africa, especially as swiddening is more characteristic of Indonesia than Africa.

    Also, yes, I'm familiar with Pleistocene remains of humans covered in red ochre. But I think it's a stretch to call them 'Red Ochre Men', and I don't think it is related to any particularly widespread pattern, because the dating is all wrong for it to correlate with similar uses of materials in Eurasia or anywhere else.

  3. "Australian aboriginal life is almost nightmarishly difficult to find out about. There are a few popular books on the subject, but these tend to treat indigenous Australians as noble savages or portray ancient Australia as a place with little meaningful cultural variation."

    I believe Azar Gat said something similar in his epochal War in Human Civilization. His response was to find and read as many 'first contact' accounts he could get his hands on and piece together accounts of aboriginal warfare among the various regions himself.

    That is a book worth reading, by the way. If you haven't, you ought to. You have the knowledge base to appreciate how outstanding it really is.

  4. I haven't read Gat's book, although I certainly intend to - it's on my Amazon wishlist, so I expect I'll get around to it.

    First contact accounts are pretty variable. The one that sticks in my head is Dampier's. Dampier landed at 'New Holland' in 1688, and in his book he described the inhabitants in what was probably the most offensive and racist way possible. Some of the basic ethnographic information is sort of useful - he mentions that both men and women lacked front teeth, for instance - but most of it is speculation and racism. About a hundred years after that, in 1789, there was a massive smallpox epidemic, probably introduced to Arnhemland by Makassarese sailors, and it is estimated that 80% of the population of Australia died. This coincided with the arrival of the 'first fleet' landing in New South Wales, and most first contact texts were written after this point. The epidemic, and several others following in close succession, had enormous impacts on Aboriginal society, probably accounting for the rise of wife-sharing and other supposedly traditional features.

    It is also believed by Australianists that the section and sub-section kinship systems present in Australia at the time of contact were actually a relatively recent innovation and do not represent Aboriginal cultural variation as it was before the last few centuries.

    So essentially the picture of Australia that can be found in first contact accounts is probably nothing like the way it was in 1500 CE or earlier.

    I expect Australian Aboriginal warfare could be investigated effectively through first contact accounts, although it would be difficult to verify through other avenues. For almost everything else, from subsistence and economic intensification to migration and kinship, linguistics and archaeology seem to provide much more reliable information.

  5. Hi Al. You might want to take a look at Chapter Fourteen of my book, Sounding the Depths. It's called "Mysteries of Sahul." As I see it, since both Australia and New Guinea were once a single "continent," we cannot consider the history of the one without considering the history of the other. Which, on the basis of both cultural and genetic evidence, is what I try to do. Here's the link:

    Victor Grauer

  6. Thanks for your comment, Victor.

    While there may be tantalising similarities between Dixon's reconstructed proto-Australian and the languages of (IIRC) the eastern Highlands, at least according to William Foley's The Papuan Languages of New Guinea (published in the 80s; I believe it is still the most current work on the topic), there doesn't appear to have been any serious overlap between Australia and New Guinea for 8,000 years (when they became geologically distinct entities). That's a long time. It's long enough to obliterate connections, I think, certainly any that would warrant any serious scholarly attention. Just as most of the Americas can and should be understood without reference to northeastern Asia, so New Guinea and Australia can and should be treated separately, especially as the economies on each landmass were utterly different - domestication occurred early in New Guinea and only appeared in Australia with European contact. So they should be treated separately. That's a general point, not necessarily linking to your chapter.

    Now, onto your chapter. I don't find the model all that convincing, largely because the proposed (controversial, hypothetical) migration of Indians to Australia is supposed to have occurred c.4000 BP, consistent with the rise of both the dingo and the small tool tradition (so-called) but not with the economic intensification you cite for the same time period and which Evans and McConvell associated with Pama-Nyungan (archaeologists now believe it occurred much earlier, as I say above). So the arrival of Indians cannot have caused a migration into New Guinea as part of a refuge, because New Guinea was separate from Australia at that time and had been for four thousand years or so. Unless you assume that the Australians had seaworthy vessels, and, when they arrived, ditched their language and material culture (AFAIK, Australian and Papuan blades are different, and the time-depth is easily shallow enough to preserve linguistic connections), the model is untenable.

  7. Also, the multiple migration model of the settlement of Australia - including so-called 'Negrito' migration - is no longer the consensus. Birdsell was an excellent scholar, but he was also capable of being wrong. I'd suggest reading Hiscock's excellent (if rather dry) The Archaeology of Ancient Australia as a remedy for these problems. Australia, it seems, was settled by one primary group who arrived in the around 50,000+ years ago. Differences in early Australian skeletons (gracile versus robust) actually appear to be due to the mistaken classification of some female skeletons as male, as surprising as that sounds. Again, I defer to Peter Hiscock.

    Moreover, Tasmania was separated from Australia for a long time, about as long as New Guinea if memory serves, and saw none of the mid-Holocene changes seen on the mainland (Tasmanian languages do not appear to have been related to Pama-Nyungan). But that doesn't mean that Tasmania didn't have a history. Of course it did. For instance, the taboo on eating fish appears relatively recent, and is only sporadically realised in the archaeological record. The exploitation of different ecological zones in response to climate change is also well-documented, and there must have been plenty of sociological changes in response to these as well. So the idea that isolated Tasmanians preserve some aspect of 'African' (viz, early human) culture is not tenable, and it seems like the least verifiable kind of history possible.

    If musicological evidence is at all important for reconstructing human prehistory, it needs to be inserted into a proper framework for prehistory. I'm sure you agree with that. It looks to me like your model needs a rethink in light of the archaeological and linguistic evidence. Definitely give Hiscock a read. Hiscock, by the way, doesn't link Pama-Nyungan to the spread of backed blades, ie, the small tool tradition. He doesn't mention language at all, as the book is about the archaeology, and is one of many examples of the need for linguists and archaeologists to work together. The linkage between backed blades and Pama-Nyungan is mine, and it fits better than the Evans and McConvell model (which was good in its day, but now the evidence doesn't fit).

    1. Thanks for your very thorough critique, Al. I'm pleased to see that you read through my chapter pretty thoroughly, and I very much appreciate your response. I don't pretend to be an expert on Australian archaeology or linguistics, but I must say I was puzzled by the striking contrasts between Australia and New Guinea (also Island Melanesia) and also some of the mysteries surrounding the deepest layers of Sahul's history. So I tried my best to come up with a theory that might account for at least some of the issues that puzzled me. Also I was intrigued by some of the genetic (also morphological) evidence suggesting an Indo-Australian connection, especially the contrast between the mtDNA and Y chromosome evidence. As far as the musical part is concerned, I must confess that I've never been able to find any musical practice in India that resembled Australian Aboriginal music, though I did point to at least one interesting similarity with respect to dance style.

      It's all very speculative, as I admitted in the book. But even if it can't account for all the evidence, or seems unlikely in view of the evidence, I do believe I've highlighted some of the conundrums that face anyone trying to make sense of its history.

      As far as Birdesell is concerned, I believe he did establish the presence of pygmies in Australia, which can't be ignored, nor easily explained away. Nor can the contrast between the linguistic picture for northern Australia (closest to N. Guinea) and all the rest, which suggests that Pama-Nyungan is in all likelihood a language that appears to have spread with the migrations of a particular society throughout most of the continent in relatively recent times.

      My reconstruction may be full of holes, but there's a lot in that chapter that can't be ignored, nevertheless.

    2. With respect to your comments regarding the timing of my hypothetical arrival of "australoid" males from India: "So the arrival of Indians cannot have caused a migration into New Guinea as part of a refuge, because New Guinea was separate from Australia at that time and had been for four thousand years or so."

      According my reconstruction, the earliest inhabitants of the Sahul would have been part of the original Out of Africa migration, ca. 80000-60000 ya, and would still have had a fundamentally "African" physiognomy (pygmoid), culture, value system and musical style (as defined earlier in my book). And they would very soon have inhabited ALL of Sahul, or at least the coastal regions, and become established therefore in BOTH what is now N. Guinea AND Australia. So when my (hypothetical) australoid males arrived from India, there would have been no need for the "Africans" to retreat to N. Guinea in boats, since they were already there. One might therefore posit that the "African" males in Australia could have been (mostly) wiped out, but those in N. Guinea survived by retreating to the highlands. That's one possibility.

      Another possibility is that, as has often been argued, the Out of Africa migrants may have, from the start of their migration, been following the Indian Ocean coast in boats or rafts, so relatively short ocean voyages may have been within their capabilities. As far as Tasmania is concerned, I'm not sure what to think as there is now so little evidence.

      Whether my model might possibly be adjusted to fit the blade evidence, I have no idea. I appreciate the reference to Hiscock's book, and will look into it. I have no problem adjusting my theory to the facts as I learn more, especially since my Sahul reconstruction has no bearing on the rest of my book or my take on deep history generally.

    3. The first thing to mention is that pygmies, so called, do not appear in Australia's archaeological record. It seems as if the aboriginal population of Australia derives primarily from a single population that arrived approximately 50,000 bp from islands to the north and west. Genetic differences between Australians and Papuans can perhaps be explained by reference to the different climate and geology on each landmass, which would contribute different selective pressures, and by the contribution of so-called 'Mongoloid' markers in the form of Austronesian interlopers in the mid-Holocene. I don't think multiple Negroid/Australoid migrations are the best explanation, certainly not any proposed movements from India in the Holocene.

      You're right that there are mysteries. According to paleobotanists, domestication of the banana occurred in New Guinea a thousand years before New Guinea separated from Sahul. So why didn't horticulture spread into Australia as well? Where did the dingo actually come from? Why do some south Asian markers appear in Australian populations? How did Pama-Nyungan proliferate? These are the big mysteries, and to be frank, I don't think your account provides satisfactory answers to them.

      Even if you take nothing else away from this, you should at least amend the reference to economic intensification in mid-Holocene Australia, as it is now known that this occurred many millennia earlier and had nothing to do with the spread of Pama-Nyungan. Australian archaeology is not especially fast-moving, but paradigms do occasionally get overturned, as this one has been.

    4. Thanks again, Al. I agree that I need to learn more about Australian archaeology. However, I must add that, as I stress in my book, archaeological research comes with some very serious limitations that make it especially problematic as an historical tool. For one thing, the evidence is highly fragmented, and extremely sparse. No one can ever say for sure if something important has not yet been uncovered. For another, in the absence of ethnographic analogy, which many archaeologists frown on, it's almost impossible to interpret the meaning of just about any of this evidence, aside from establishing certain dates (often with questionable certainty). Also, just about anything claimed by one archaeologist is almost certain to be disputed by another, so there is very little consensus in the field as a whole.

      "It seems as if the aboriginal population of Australia derives primarily from a single population that arrived approximately 50,000 bp from islands to the north and west." There was no such thing as "Australia" at that time, nor any land mass corresponding to it. We are talking about Sahul, which tells us that it makes no sense to separate "Australia" from "New Guinea" when attempting to reconstruct the earliest history of that region. I agree that the populations found by the earliest Western travelers and missionaries were very different between Australia and N. Guinea, but that doesn't provide an excuse for ignoring the fact that the original settlers landed in Sahul, not Australia. The differences must therefor be accounted for, convenient though it might be to ignore them.

      That said, I am by no means in love with the reconstruction I proposed in the book and very much appreciate your critique, which I take very seriously. Would you mind if I copied and pasted your comments into the comments section of my blog-book?

    5. Archaeology is easily the most reliable means of finding out about the past, and generally there is a strong consensus. It also tends not to depend on ethnographic parallels, unless we have evidence of continuity. Archaeology is the best method, and you ignore it at your peril. It's fragmented, sure, but if you want to know about mid-Holocene economies, there literally isn't another method, and archaeology is now incredibly reliable on such issues. Everybody seems to have a pet human science that they're willing to abuse; biologists seem to hate linguistics and readily abuse it, labelling it unscientific because it doesn't work exactly like population genetics, while linguists and ethnographers abuse archaeology, as if it were nothing more than unscientific rummaging in the dirt. It's best to examine all of the pertinent evidence without prejudice, to my mind, and to attempt to understand the workings of every relevant method.

      You're right that the population entered Sahul, but New Guinea has seen subsequent migrations and economic changes that Australia did not, and while Australia's population saw little influx of new blood for 50,000 years, New Guinea's saw plenty. That's why I mentioned only Australia, not Sahul. Australia's population has been consistent, while Sahul's as a whole has not.

      And of course you can copy my comments to your book.

    6. Thanks for permitting me to repost your comments on my blog. One advantage of publishing a book in this way is to encourage further discussion and critique by eliciting feedback. So by opening itself up to comments of this sort, my book becomes truly interactive.

      As far as my comments on archaeology are concerned, it wasn't my intention to dismiss archaeological research but to "put it in its place," so to speak, because in certain circles it's regarded as some sort of ultimate arbiter of truth simply because it deals with "hard facts" as opposed to ethnographic, linguistic, musical, etc. evidence, which might seem less "scientific." As I see it, ALL the evidence, including the archaeological evidence, must be considered. While fossils, bones, stones, etc. constitute tangible survivals from the distant past and are in many cases amenable to scientific methodologies, such as stratigraphy, carbon dating, etc., that evidence is, as I've said, notoriously fragmentary and difficult to interpret. So I must respectfully disagree regarding its special status as our "most reliable" source of historical information. In fact archaeologists, more than most, are notorious for their tendency to speculate, often wildly, on the basis of very slim evidence indeed. On the other hand, there is no question that archaeology can be an extremely valuable resource and that many archaeologists have contributed to our understanding of human evolution and history in a major way, so I would by no means advocate ignoring or underestimating such research.

      Speaking of which, I took your good advice, went to the library and now have Hiscock's book, "Archaeology of Ancient Australia" in my hands. It is certainly an impressive piece of work, filled to the brim with useful information and interesting interpretations of a wealth of data gathered from a wide array of sources. I've been reading it and learning a lot, so thanks for the tip.

      I'm impressed certainly -- but not overwhelmed. Hiscock has clearly made up his mind about what is and is not the case as far as Australia is concerned. He is very sure of himself and not shy about dismissing the ideas of others. But I see no particular reason for accepting his interpretation at the expense of so many others simply because his is the latest take. Birdsell's trihybrid model is dismissed in two or three lines, with no mention whatsoever of his claim regarding the existence of Australian pygmies, for which there seems considerable evidence, including photos. We're talking naked tribal people found living in a rainforest refuge area. Where could they have come from? How did they get to where they were found? He appears to have no interest in this question and I wonder why.

      He glibly dismisses the genetic evidence for the Indian connection I've pointed to, claiming simply that "further research found no evidence for substantial gene flow from the Indian subcontinent" (p. 97). Significantly, he forgets to mention that the gene flow in question was based exclusively on the male lineage (Y chromosome) only, with no trace of any similar connection on the female line (mtDNA). Yet, as is clear from their titles, literally all the papers he cites in rebuttal are based exclusively on mtDNA. So, as far as the connection with India is concerned, the presumed lack of evidence is beside the point.

      It is moreover far from clear that the difference between "gracile" and "robust" skeletal remains can be explained simply on the basis of sexual dimorphism as Hiscock claims. Examining any number of photos of contemporary aboriginals we see a great many "robust" females, with not a single "gracile" face among them. And I'm wondering where else in the world one would expect to find such dramatic dimorphism between males and females, at least among members of the human species. It's an interesting speculation, but I see no basis for it whatsoever.

    7. Robust and gracile are classifications of human bodies - physique, not face. And like all human groups, indigenous Australian women are slighted than the men. In any case, regardless of Hiscock's personal opinion, it is the consensus of archaeologists and physical anthropologists that Australia was settled approximately once.

      Now, onto the Indian issue... this is a tricky one. If you've been following Razib over at Gene Expression, you'll know that the results showing Indian mid-Holocene migration to Australia are controversial and the implications are not fully worked out. Moreover, if they did arrive at that time, they brought no Indian tools and southeast Asian dogs. So... again, it's controversial. I think it might better be explained by late Holocene gene flow from Indonesia to south Asia, which is historically documented. A few Australian haplogroups are present in Indonesia populations, after all. Either way, Indian migration still wouldn't correlate with economic intensification, because that didn't happen in the mid-Holocene. It happened earlier. Climate change and the spread of Pama-Nyungan were the big issues then, neither of which need parsimoniously be related to Indian migration.

      I seem to remember Hancock giving significantly more space to refuting Birdsell than a couple of lines. I'll check the book tomorrow for references. In any case, the consensus is that Birdsell was wrong about that.

    8. *Hiscock, not Hancock. Blame autocorrect for that one.

    9. ...And *slighted, for which read 'slighter'. Still getting used to this thing.

      I should point out that I'm much more interested in the problem of Pama-Nyungan expansion than Indian genes in indigenous Australian populations or the initial settlement of Australia. Pama-Nyungan can tell us a lot, while Indian markers are just puzzling and controversial at this point. Still, it's interesting to think about. Either way, I'd suggest revising your account of Australian prehistory to include a fuller understanding of Pama-Nyungan, even if you keep everything else the same.

  8. Returning to the possibility of an Indian connection, I must admit that in all the years since the publication of the paper I cited (Redd et al. 2002) I haven't seen any trace of a followup, and have been wondering if the evidence of Y chromosome gene flow from India might have been an artifact or the product of an inadequate sample. So I did a little digging this morning, and was delighted to find that in fact the followup I'd been looking for has recently been published, and the results, God help me, are encouraging.

    The paper, by Pugach et al (including Mark Stoneking, a leading authority on the genetics of Oceania) was reported last January, in Nature News, under the heading, "Genomes Link Aboriginal Australians to Indians":

    "Some aboriginal Australians can trace as much as 11% of their genomes to migrants who reached the island around 4,000 years ago from India, a study suggests. Along with their genes, the migrants brought different tool-making techniques and the ancestors of the dingo, researchers say."

    The paper itself is titled "Genome-wide data substantiate Holocene gene
    flow from India to Australia." I've read it and am pleased to report that it's findings are, for the most part, consistent with the hypothesis presented in my book. Since Pugach's research is based on genome wide, i.e., autosomal, data, the earlier evidence regarding the difference between the male and female lines is, unfortunately, not a factor, and therefore not discussed. Nevertheless, there is nothing in it that contradicts the earlier paper, so I'm assuming that the "different histories for males and females" aspect still holds.

    Another finding from the same source appears to be consistent with my reconstruction of the earliest phase of Sahul's history:

    "Pugach confirmed an ancient association between the genomes of Australians, New Guineans and the Mamanwa — a Negrito group from the Philippines. These populations diverged around 36,000 years ago, suggesting that they all descended from an early southward migration out of Africa."

    Let me know, Al, if this paper interests you and if so I'll email you a copy. I'd very much appreciate your thoughts on this, and whether anything in the paper might have changed your mind.

  9. "Robust and gracile are classifications of human bodies - physique, not face." Not according to Hiscock (see p. 93 of his book).

    "In any case, regardless of Hiscock's personal opinion, it is the consensus of archaeologists and physical anthropologists that Australia was settled approximately once."

    Well, clearly this is still a contentious issue, and will probably remain so for some time.

    As far as the Indian connection is concerned, I must admit that I too am puzzled by all the back and forth, especially the apparently contradictory and confusing genetic evidence. It's hard to believe that some group from India got in a boat and sailed directly to Australia, either deliberately or accidentally. (On the other hand, we do have the precedent of Austronesians making their way to Madagascar.) The most compelling non-genetic evidence has always been the strong morphological resemblance between certain S. Indian tribal peoples (the so-called "australoids") and today's Australian aboriginals. But of all people living in India 4,000 years ago, the tribals seem least likely to have been capable of such a long Ocean voyage.

    Who can tell what might have happened 5,000 years ago? According to Pugach el al., "The signal of Indian gene flow might not necessarily come directly from India; it is easy to envision a scenario whereby the Indian ancestry comes to Australia indirectly, e.g., via contact with island SE Asian populations." That has always seemed the most likely possibility to me. But Pugach and her colleagues found "no signal whatsoever of recent gene flow from India into these populations or
    from these populations into Australia." Very strange. However, the absence of such a signal doesn't mean it's not there, but could simply be due to an inadequate sample.

    As far as "economic intensification" is concerned, that possibility is more important for you than me. Whether or not all these various changes, including certain types of stone tools, the dingo, etc., can be ascribed to some sort of Indian incursion strikes me as a side issue. What's important is very simply the possibility (and I must stress POSSIBILITY, as that's all it is at this point) that a group of australoid males MIGHT have landed in Australia at some time after its initial settlement and literally took over the continent, intermarrying with native females and thus producing the australoid phenotypes we now see, and in the process spreading a single language family AND a single musical style throughout most of the continent. Such a development could explain a lot, so I think it worth exploring. Whether or not that or anything like it actually happened is, of course, a matter for speculation, but I see nothing as yet in the genetic or archaeological evidence that disproves it.

    1. The original founding population of Australia was 'Australoid'. That isn't in serious dispute in the academy anymore. I don't think Pama-Nyungan is best explained by Indian migration, either - and by that I mean the set of traits associated with Pama-Nyungan, including tool types, dogs, and possibility the musical style you allude to. I have set out the Pama-Nyungan expansion model above, the most realistic and sensible one that accords with both the archaeological and linguistic data. The idea that Indian migration was behind any of this is, as far as I can tell, pseudoscientific, and even if Indians were responsible for something in mid-Holocene Australia (even if it were just a few haplotypes), that still doesn't give us a model for the expansion. It's just a black box: Indians arrived and then Pama-Nyungan/musical style/backed unifacial blades, &c, spread across the continent. No, we need a model, and the one that accords best with the archaeological and climatic evidence, by far, is the one I wrote about above.

      Moreover, if proto-Australian has any validity at all (and perhaps it does), then Pama-Nyungan is a part of it. It isn't a foreign interloper in Australia. The expansion of an indigenous family due to a non-indigenous social group entering the continent seems unlikely, and we'd need much more evidence to go on than this spurious multiple-migration-Negrito-Indian model, which is a) based on out-dated scholarship, especially in terms of archaeology and b) fails to provide a realistic model for population movements in Holocene Australia.

      (On the other hand, we do have the precedent of Austronesians making their way to Madagascar.)

      That isn't a precedent for tribal migration from India, which would involve a completely different group of people, completely different technologies, and completely different time frame (Austronesian migration to Madagascar from Borneo seems to have occurred c.1 CE). It seems likely that trans-Indian Ocean trade was occurring as far back as 2000 BCE (4,000 BP), as cloves, a Moluccan spice, have been found in the stores of merchants in Syria dating to around 1700 BCE (in fact, if I can dig up the reference, I can even tell you the merchant's name). But this must have been trade conducted primarily by Malayo-Polynesian-speaking people in outrigger canoes and other seaworthy vessels, products of Malayo-Polynesian design. It's not impossible that south Indian merchants could have hitched a ride on a trans-Indian Ocean vessel piloted by Malayic speakers, and then ended up in Australia.

      Again, though: what would this explain other than the Australian genetic material? The answer seems to be, nothing.

  10. I feel guilty about hogging so much space on your blog, Al, so from now on I'll post my responses as comments on my own blog, specifically Chapter Fourteen ( If you still want to continue our dialogue, I invite you to post there.

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