Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Monday, June 19, 2017

New DNA results challenge Indian pre-conceptions


The thorniest, most fought-over question in Indian history is slowly but surely getting answered: did Indo-European language speakers, who called themselves Aryans, stream into India sometime around 2,000 BC – 1,500 BC when the Indus Valley civilisation came to an end, bringing with them Sanskrit and a distinctive set of cultural practices? Genetic research based on an avalanche of new DNA evidence is making scientists around the world converge on an unambiguous answer: yes, they did. Tony Joseph, Hindu Times
Interesting piece in the Hindu Times again illustrating the way that DNA analysis is re-shaping our view of the world.

I have absolutely no expertise in the question of Indo-Aryan migration, nor am I familiar enough with Indian politics to know how how questions of the direction of migration play out domestically. I had always assumed that part of the ethnic difference between the north and south of the country lay in the different migration patterns, with the north open to waves of migration from elsewhere in Eurasia. The latest data would appear to support that view.
Until recently, only data on mtDNA (or matrilineal DNA, transmitted only from mother to daughter) were available and that seemed to suggest there was little external infusion into the Indian gene pool over the last 12,500 years or so. New Y-DNA data has turned that conclusion upside down, with strong evidence of external infusion of genes into the Indian male lineage during the period in question.
Tony Joseph suggests that the reason for the difference in mtDNA and Y-DNA data is obvious in hindsight: there was strong sex bias in Bronze Age migrations. In other words, those who migrated were predominantly male and, therefore, those gene flows do not really show up in the mtDNA data. On the other hand, they do show up in the Y-DNA data:

In fact, about 17.5% of Indian male lineage has been found to belong to haplogroup R1a (haplogroups identify a single line of descent), which is today spread across Central Asia, Europe and South Asia. The Pontic-Caspian Steppe is seen as the region from where R1a spread both west and east, splitting into different sub-branches along the way. Genetic analysis suggests that the Indian versions of R1A split of between 2,000 and 1,500 BC.

Postscript 21 June 2017

Ramana, my Indian blogger friend, pointed me to this rebuttal of the Joseph piece, Genetics Might Be Settling The Aryan Migration Debate, But Not How Left-Liberals Believe. My first reaction was that  Anil Kumar Suri appeared to be wielding a rather hatchet in what was clearly an ideological dispute that I did not properly understand.

I need to go back to to the Joseph piece and look at the detail of DNA material provided to try to determine what is factual as compared to ideological positioning on both sides. Meantime, some one may be able to explain just what the apparent ideological and political dispute really is..

On a different topic, regular commenter Johnb has pointed me to yet another DNA study, First complete genome data extracted from ancient Egyptian mummies. For later reference.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Terry Crowley's hunt for traditional languages

1842: A dance in the Macleay Valley at the end of an initiation ceremony. A key issue that Terry Crowley had to address in his work was the relationship between the Anaiwan or Nganjaywana language and those on the coast. This is the second in a series discussing the deciphering of the mysteries of New England's Anaiwan or Nganjaywana Aboriginal language.

I am not a linguist. Indeed, my early school attempts to learn Latin and French can only be described as spectacular failures, creating a fear of languages that lingers to this day. I make this point because we are now going to enter territory way beyond my normal professional competence.

We know that language changes over time. To understand this, you need only watch the TV clips celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Aboriginal constitutional referendum. Many people I know are surprised at just how “posh’ the Aboriginal activists of the time sounded.

The shifts in New Zealand English provides a second example. The “thuck” New Zealand accent that we know today did not exist in 1967 outside a few isolated geographic areas.

Linguists have developed various techniques for analysing languages, changes in languages and the relationship between languages.

Phonology refers to the system of relationships among speech sounds that determine the way a language sounds. Lexical refers to the vocabulary of a language. Grammar refers to the rules for structuring language of which phonology is a part.

When linguist Terry Crowley began his study of the Anaiwan or Nganjaywana language, he had to overcome a number of problems.

The first was variety. Within broad language groups, each local group spoke their own language that might vary from their neighbours to some degree. There were language chains in which the language at each end might vary considerably.

Unlike current Australians, the Aborigines were also multi-lingual. They could switch between dialects or indeed languages depending on whom they were talking too. We see this today in the Northern Territory where some Aboriginal people may speak multiple languages, with English the third or fourth language spoken.
... the Anaiwan were effectively dispossessed in the space of just a few years. One effect was language collapse.
 All this created difficulties for those few interested enough to record language beyond the complexity associated with just writing down the sounds in English. What language were they in fact recording?

In the case of the Tablelands languages, a further factor came into play.

The initial spread of European occupation was quite slow. An Anaiwan man born in 1788 would have been 44 before the first Europeans arrived on the southern Tablelands, although knowledge of and effects of European occupation including introduced diseases probably reached the Tablelands far earlier.

One the European settlers did reach the Tableland, the whole area was at least loosely occupied within ten years. This had profound effects on the Anaiwan who were effectively dispossessed in the space of juts a few years. One effect was language collapse.

By the time Terry Crowley started his work, there were no native Nganjaywana speakers left. He therefore had to rely on the imperfect records left behind, using his linguistic skills. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 7 June 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Paleoanthropologists having fun - Almost Human, new discoveries from Jebel Irhoud

In “Almost Human,” the search for hominin fossils reads like an extreme sport. Written by Lee Berger with fellow paleoanthropologist John Hawks, the book documents with riveting intensity Berger’s lifelong fascination with fossil hunting and the contributions he has made to our understanding of human origins. Rachel Newcombe Washington Post
There is no doubt that paleoanthropologists are having fun at the present time. One sign of this is the release of Lee Berger and John Hawks' Almost Human. From Rachel Newcombe's review in the Washington Post it sounds like a rattling good yarn.
In contemporary paleoanthropological circles, Berger ..... is considered something of a maverick. He invites National Geographic to document his expeditions for social media, puts out calls on Facebook to invite scientists to join his teams and, rather than hoarding his finds so he alone can analyze them, makes replicas and photos of fossils available for other scientists to study. Rachel Newcombe
Berger may be a maverick, certainly he has drawn criticism from fellow professionals, but he is part of a new wave that is reshaping our fundamental understanding of the deep human past.

"The famous drawing of a linear and simplistic evolution from ape-like individual morphing to an upright modern human is anything but accurate." Renaud Joannes-Boyau

The latest in the string of recent discoveries exciting paleoanthropologists comes from the Jebel Irhoud site in
Morocco 100  some kilometers west of Marrakech. This site first  came to attention in 196o when a barite mining operation discovered a fossil skull. Subsequent excavations uncovered a range of hominin (early human) fossils but there were considerable difficulties in dating them accurately.

In 2004 an international team of scientists led by Jean-Jaques Hublin from the Max Planck Institute  for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and including Renaud Joannes-Boyau from Southern Cross University began a  new study of the site. They found 16 new human fossils, animal remains and a large number of African Middle Stone Age artifacts showing Levallois technology with a high proportion of retouched tools.

The rather starting results  have now been announced in two articles published in Nature.well summarised by two stories, one by Renaud Joannes-Boyau in The Conversation,  a second by Kate Wong in Scientific American.

The fossils have been classified as belonging to homo sapiens. They display our species slim "gracile" face as compared to the more robust face and elongated skull of the Neanderthals. However, there are differences in skull structure from today with a more elongated brain case, both longer and lower. In date terms, the remains have been dated to 300,000 years ago, adding 100,000 years to the earliest known date for homo sapiens.

In parallel with the two Nature articles on the latest Jebel Irhoud results, results have been released for a pre peer review formal publication study entitled Ancient genomes from southern Africa pushes modern human divergence beyond 260,000 years ago.This early release process allows  preliminary study results to be made available quickly; the formal peer review and publication process can take years.

This study examined the genomes of seven people from several different groups in Southern Africa who lived between 300 and 2,000 years ago. The results suggested that the different groups to which these individuals belonged diverged at least 260,000 years ago, implying that homo sapiens is at least this old.      

 I lack the technical expertise to properly evaluate the latest results. However, the conclusions as I see them are:
  • Homo sapiens emerged earlier and was more wide spread across Africa than previously realised, well before the 100,000 or so years ago date for the out-of-Africa migration
  • The evidence for overlap in time between various hominid species seems to be getting stronger all the time
  • The definition of just what constitutes homo sapiens among hominids has become very uncertain. I's all very messy if also intensely interesting! 
  • The need to understand the detail of constantly changing environments over long periods keeps growing. 

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Explorations through the early days of tertiary education in Australia's New England

This post provides a consolidated list of posts exploring the early days of tertiary education in New England to make it easier for readers to follow the story through in order.

The first tertiary institution was St John's Theological College founded in 1898 by Bishop Arthur Vincent Green to train future Anglican clergy.

In May 1926, the College was relocated from Armidale to Morpeth in the Hunter Valley. The story of the College is outlined in a 2014 post, History revisited – college a capital idea.

While the College's loss was a significant one from an Armidale perspective, its presence had added to the city’s reputation as an education centre, aiding the foundation of the Teacher’s College in 1928.

This College was the first major Australian higher education institution established outside a capital city.

Starting in March 2017, I explored the College's early  days in a series of eight Armidale Express columns later posted here:
I had intended to continue the series into the early days of the New England University College (founded 1938) but decided after eight consecutive columns that it was better to break the series into two parts. I will add the next series here once complete.

A note on sources

I normally don't include sources with the columns. However, I will add sources here in due course so that those who are interested can follow up.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

The man who cracked the Anaiwan code

Terry Crowley: A brilliant linguist who shed light on the mystery of Anaiwan. This is the first in a series discussing the deciphering of the mysteries of New England's Anaiwan or Nganjaywana Aboriginal language
Next part in this series; Terry Crowley's hunt for traditional languages 
It took the brilliant linguist Terry Crowley to crack the mystery attached to the Anaiwan or Nganjaywana language of the southern New England Tablelands. He did so as a third year student at the Australian National University.

Terrence Michael Crowley was born on 1 April 1953 in Billericay just east of London. The family emigrated to Australia when Crowley was about seven years old, taking up a dairy farm outside Shepparton.

Crowley was dux at Shepparton High School in 1970, enrolling the following year in a Bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies at ANU. There he came under the influence of R M W Dixon who interested him in Aboriginal languages. In 1974, he gained first class honours with a University Medal in linguistics and then worked as a research assistant in Bob Dixon’s department, again concentrating on Australian Aboriginal languages.

At this point, Terry Crowley’s interest moved to the languages of the Pacific and especially Vanuatu. His sudden and unexpected death from heart attack on 15 January 2005 came as a shock to friends and colleagues alike.

Crowley made his contribution to our understanding of the Aboriginal languages of the broader New England during the early part of his career.

In 1976 came his pioneering study of the Nganjaywana language. This was followed in 1978 by two publications on Bundjalung, the language spoke north of the Clarence. Then in 1979 came a piece on Yaygir, the language spoken at the mouth of the Clarence.

Prior to Crowley’s work, the Nganjaywana or Anaiwan language was a mystery. It seemed so different from other Aboriginal languages, a language on its own. Was it in fact a remnant of an earlier language, the sign of remnant group from an migration?

There has been dispute about the pattern of early human settlement of the Australian continent, disputes that have formed part of the so-called history wars. Are modern Aborigines direct descendants of a first founder group or have there been several waves of migration, with later arrivals mixing with and ultimately supplanting earlier arrivals?

The model extended and popularised by American anthropologist Joseph Birdsell suggested that settlement had come in three distinct waves involving different peoples. This model was supported by theoretical arguments, as well as skeletal, cultural, ethnographic and linguistic studies.

One thread in the discussion was that the Tasmanians, the pigmies of North East Queensland and perhaps the Anaiwan were remnants of an earlier migration pattern later supplanted by modern Aboriginal groups.

We now know, I think, that modern Australian Aboriginals are direct descendants of first settler groups. This does not rule out settlement by earlier hominids, we have no evidence here at all, nor does it rule out later admixtures. However, the basic pattern seems clear.

While modern DNA analysis is central to our new understanding, it was the work of linguists such as Crowley who filled in part of the pattern. In particular, Crowley showed that Anaiwan was related to surrounding languages.

I will continue this story next week.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 31 May 2017. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017.