Proposed Australian language tree
A University of Newcastle (UON) news item published on 21 March 2018, Indigenous language link reveals common ancestor, reported on new research on the history and structure of Australia's Aboriginal languages. As I have done before, I provide the information first while comments follow at the end.
The University of Newcastle piece reads:
"New research has found a ground-breaking link between Australian Indigenous languages, demonstrating for the first time that all Indigenous languages descend from one common ancestor.
The unprecedented finding sheds new light on the origins of Australian language and has significant implications for the cultural history of Australia.
The result of a collaboration between the University of Newcastle (UON) and Western Sydney University (WSU), the finding is the first time the theory that all Australian languages derive from one language, Proto-Australian, has been proven.
UON Chief Investigator and historical linguist, Associate Professor Mark Harvey, said the finding was an exciting culmination of a three-year project, which he hoped would enhance the understanding of Australian and human history.
“Until now, it was speculated that Australia was significantly more linguistically diverse than somewhere like Europe, because it had not been proven that all Australian languages actually stemmed from the same lineage.
“This is the first demonstration that all Australian languages are part of the same language family. This language family spread across all of Australia, presumably from a small area in Northern Australia. This spread is likely to have been carried out by at least some population movement whose material and genetic traces have remained somewhat elusive.
“However, with further interdisciplinary research, this new linguistic evidence is likely to give us a more precise reconstruction of Australian prehistory from what is currently known,” Associate Professor Harvey said.
The project used the standard method in historical linguistics to establish whether similarity between languages was due to inheritance from a common ancestor, as opposed to transfer from one language to another through human contact or chance.
WSU Chief Investigator, Associate Professor Robert Mailhammer, said the findings revealed recurrent similarities between languages that were not in contact.
“We discovered that the sounds of words we compared showed recurrent systematic differences and similarities across a set of languages that are spread out in a geographically discontinuous way, which makes it very unlikely that they are the result of chance or language contact,” Associate Professor Mailhammer said.
While a multitude of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were spoken at the time of European settlement, the findings also imply that Indigenous Australian languages only spread after the end of the last ice age, some 10-12,000 years ago.
“These findings show that Indigenous Australian languages were not the likely languages spoken by the first inhabitants of Australia, raising more questions around how the languages spread and how the linguistic findings connect to the genetic findings,” Associate Professor Mailhammer added.
Both researchers recognise that work in this area will continue, with plans to publish a book on Proto-Australian and collaborate with other disciplines to inform what is known about the prehistory of Australia.
Funded under an Australian Research Centre (ARC) 2014 Discovery Project, the key research was published in the leading journal of historical linguistics, Diachronica.
Researching in the field of Indigenous language, Dr Raymond Kelly from the University of Newcastle’s PURAI Global Indigenous and Diaspora Research Studies Centre said the findings would come as a welcome relief to many first nation people in the state of New South Wales (NSW) working at the coal face of language reconstruction, revival and renewal programs.
“During the course of research for my own PhD, I also developed a similar conviction that Aboriginal languages in NSW are formed or drawn from a single source and expand beyond the state and territorial boundaries that we know exist today. These findings provide a healthy opportunity to re-evaluate the concept of connection and relationship for community,” Dr Kelly said."The abstract of the :Diachronica article, the full article is behind a paywall, reads:
"Evaluation of hypotheses on genetic relationships depends on two factors: database size and criteria on correspondence quality. For hypotheses on remote relationships, databases are often small. Therefore, detailed consideration of criteria on correspondence quality is important. Hypotheses on remote relationships commonly involve greater geographical and temporal ranges. Consequently, we propose that there are two factors which are likely to play a greater role in comparing hypotheses of chance, contact and inheritance for remote relationships: (i) spatial distribution of corresponding forms; and (ii) language specific unpredictability in related paradigms. Concentrated spatial distributions disfavour hypotheses of chance, and discontinuous distributions disfavour contact hypotheses, whereas hypotheses of inheritance may accommodate both. Higher levels of language-specific unpredictability favour remote over recent transmission. We consider a remote relationship hypothesis, the Proto-Australian hypothesis. We take noun class prefixation as a test dataset for evaluating this hypothesis against these two criteria, and we show that inheritance is favoured over chance and contact".
Mark Harvey and Robert Mailhammer, Reconstructing remote relationships, Diachronica, Volume 34, Issue 4, 2017, pp 470 –515, Published online 09 February 2018Comment
In The origins of Pama-Nyungan - a note on the implications for the history of New England's Aboriginal peoples (13 March 2018) I reported on new research by Professor Claire Bowern and her colleagues that concluded that all Pama-Nyungan languages, the dominant language family across Australia, emerged just under 6,000 years ago around what is now the Queensland town of Burketown and then spread across Australia as people moved in response to changing climate. This research appears consistent with those conclusions but goes further, suggesting that all Aboriginal languages were related to some common proto-language but only spread after the end of the last ice age, some 10-12,000 years ago.
My 13 March comment focused on the difficulty I was having in meshing the conclusions of Professor Claire Bowern and her colleagues with my evolving conclusions on New England Aboriginal history. A particular difficulty was the pattern of language diffusion and replacement given my evolving thoughts on Aboriginal retreat and resettlement during the Late Glacial Maximum (LGM) and following Holocene period. To restate my views:
- We have a range of dates from the Hunter Valley, Liverpool Plains and at Wallen Wallen in SE Queensland suggesting occupation during the late Pleistocene (17,000 to 22,000 years ago)
- The LGM (Late Glacial Maximum) forced populations to shift to survive. Parts of the North Coast were not very hospitable, so I postulated a retreat north and south.
- As the new coastal environment began to form, people returned. Inland, the population spread from refuge areas along the slopes and plains. The Tablelands constituted an initial barrier.As the climate eased further and the environment changed the Tablelands were resettled primarily from the coast, but also onto the slopes from the West. I think that this pattern is reflected in later language differences.
- In terms of the patchy dates we have, we have earliest settlement in the Macleay around 9,000 years ago, a date of over 6,000 years ago for Seelands in the Clarence, around 5,500 years ago for Graman on the western slopes. My feeling was that by around 6,000 years ago, reoccupation of territory after the LGM was well underway.
- from around 4000 years ago the number of dates begins to accelerate with accelerated population increase.
Then, in a comment on the findings, UON's Dr Kelly state that they would come as a welcome relief to many first nation people in the state of New South Wales working at the coal face of language reconstruction, revival and renewal programs. He goes on: :
“During the course of research for my own PhD, I also developed a similar conviction that Aboriginal languages in NSW are formed or drawn from a single source and expand beyond the state and territorial boundaries that we know exist today. These findings provide a healthy opportunity to re-evaluate the concept of connection and relationship for community,”There is something of a tension between these views. The problem is that the linguistic evidence appears to be suggesting that the Aborigines in NSW/New England who survived the LGM were supplanted by/ absorbed by later groups. So the first nations of NSW may not be the first nations at all, but peoples who came millennia later. I'm not sure that that conclusion will provide much comfort.
Professor Mailhammer suggests that the research raises more questions around the way the languages spread and how the linguistic findings connect to the genetic findings. I think that we should add archaeological findings to the list.
Last year, I reported (When and where did the Australian Aborigines and the Denisovans meet? 17 September 2017) on a 2106 Nature article by Anna-Sapfo Malaspinas, Michael C. Westaway et al
A genomic history of Aboriginal Australia. The abstract to that paper reads:
"The population history of Aboriginal Australians remains largely uncharacterized. Here we generate high-coverage genomes for 83 Aboriginal Australians (speakers of Pama–Nyungan languages) and 25 Papuans from the New Guinea Highlands. We find that Papuan and Aboriginal Australian ancestors diversified 25–40 thousand years ago (kya), suggesting pre-Holocene population structure in the ancient continent of Sahul (Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania). However, all of the studied Aboriginal Australians descend from a single founding population that differentiated ~10–32 kya. We infer a population expansion in northeast Australia during the Holocene epoch (past 10,000 years) associated with limited gene flow from this region to the rest of Australia, consistent with the spread of the Pama–Nyungan languages. We estimate that Aboriginal Australians and Papuans diverged from Eurasians 51–72 kya, following a single out-of-Africa dispersal, and subsequently admixed with archaic populations. Finally, we report evidence of selection in Aboriginal Australians potentially associated with living in the desert."As the title of my post indicates, my main focus was on the nature of DNA evidence and the linkages with the Denisovans. However, the broad conclusions as summarised in the abstract are broadly consistent with the latest linguistic evidence, with the spread of Pama–Nyungan by absorption and contact rather than occupation and replacement. However, problems remain.
Since the Nature article was published, we have the latest results from the Madjedbebe Rock Shelter (The lessons and questions from Madjedbebe) pushing back the date of human occupation of Sahul to 62,000+ years ago.As noted before, on the assumption that the Aboriginal peoples were the first occupants a tension arises between the dates suggested by DNA analysis and those from archaeology. Further, each new piece of analysis suggested a far more complex picture in terms of out-of-Africa and the spread and mixing with other hominid species.
At this point I do not quite know what to think. I am documenting for later analysis and synthesis.