Genomic history of Aboriginal Australia

The most recent issue of Nature has an article on internal diversity in Australian genetics. It includes intriguing data about the mapping between linguistic diversification and genetic diversification.


A genomic history of Aboriginal Australia

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.


Country-lines is a wonderful archive of story-telling from Aboriginal Australia. The site has a growing collection of animations created in collaboration with Aboriginal communities in different parts of Australia. For example, Yanyuwa people from Boorooloola have a set of stories of saltwater dreamings, narrated in Yanyuwa and illustrated. This is a wonderful teaching resource.

Phylogenesis of the Dreamtime

by David Rose. [unpaywalled version here]


The aim of this paper is to sketch some possible correlations between phases in the development of languages in Australia, and phases in the archaeological record of people in the continent. The technique is to compare Australian language groupings, at the scales of phylum, family, group, language and dialect, with events in the climatic and archaeological history of the continent. The emerging historical account is also correlated with other evidence from linguistics, anthropology and mythology, to identify four broad historical phases associated with expansions and contractions of resources and human populations. Universalist maxims about rates of language and cultural change are challenged by these data, suggesting that rates of change in Australia may have been considerably slower than rates in Europe, where such maxims originate. It is argued that this gradual change is more consistent with Aboriginal communities’ own accounts of their histories.

Redressing the Balance on Australian Stop Contrasts: Comments on Austin’s (1988) “Phonological Voicing Contrasts in Australian Aboriginal Languages”

by Andrew Butcher and Nicholas Reid.

Read the paper here. Below is the introduction:

Although the above article has appeared in a volume of Working Papers, rather than in an established journal, it is nevertheless widely available in Australian linguistic circles and, since it claims to be an “Australia-wide survey”, the result of twelve years of research (title footnote), it is likely to be recommended reading for many students of Australian linguistics. It is for these reasons – the claimed scope and the likely readership – that we feel it appropriate to express a number of criticisms we have of this work. These criticisms fall under two major headings: (1) The comparatively scanty treatment of the area of Australia which has the highest concentration of languages with two stop series, namely the ‘Top End’ of the Northern territory; (2) The failure to distinguish adequately between the level of phonological contrast and the level of phonetic parameters underlying the contrast.

The lexicography of indigenous languages in Australia and the Pacific

by Nick Thieberger.

Read Dr. Thieberger’s paper here. The following is its abstract:

The Australia and Pacific region is home to nearly a quarter of the world’s languages. Wordlists of a few of these languages date back to the first European explorers, while detailed dictionaries have been prepared for somewhere less than 5 % of them. Where an indigenous language is the official language of a country of this region it is more likely to have a dictionary and ongoing administrative support for lexicographic work, and, in a few cases, a corpus from which terms can be sourced. For most indigenous languages dictionaries are prepared in the course of language documentation efforts by researchers from outside of the speech community, using modern lexicographic database tools and resulting in structured lexicons. As a result, it is possible to produce various output formats of these dictionaries, including print-on-demand, multimodal webpages, and mobile devices as increasingly popular methods of delivery. A major use of these dictionaries can be to support vernacular language programs in schools. This region was a test bed for computational bilingual lexicography, and is home to the two largest comparative lexical databases of indigenous languages.

Associated motion with deictic directionals: A comparative overview

by Aicha Belkadi.

Read Dr. Belkadi’s paper here. Enjoy the following selection from its introduction:

This paper focusses on deictic directionals and their rarely discussed function as markers of Associated Motion (henceforth AM). AM is a term generally used to refer to a category of verbal affixes exhibited by a number of indigenous Australian, North American and South American languages, whose function is to indicate that the event encoded by a verb is framed with respect to a motion co-event (Koch, 1984; Wilkins, 2005; Guillaume, 2009 amongst others). The most characteristic systems of AM involve complex paradigms, where affixes are each paired with specific and quite sophisticated types of motion. Specifications may encode information about the direction and orientation of the motion event, a defined temporal relation with the verb’s event, and particular aspectual notions.

Amazonian linguistic diversity and its sociocultural correlates

by Patience Epps.

Read her chapter here. Despite its focus on non-Australian languages, those interested in Australian topics might find some of what Dr. Epps has to say very interesting. The following is a selection from its first section:

The Amazon basin is one of the most linguistically diverse regions on earth. With some 300 indigenous languages corresponding to over 50 distinct lineages, the diversity of language families in Amazonia is some ten times higher than that of Eurasia and Africa, and is rivalled only by New Guinea.

Explaining these variable patterns of diversity poses a major challenge to scholars of human prehistory. Since South America was the last continent to have undergone extensive human settlement, its linguistic diversity cannot be linked straightforwardly to time-depth of habitation (cf. Nichols 1990, Nettle 1999). Geographic factors are also not an obvious explanation, since South American diversity is concentrated in the lowlands, where natural obstacles are few (both rivers and interfluvial zones are as likely to serve as conduits as they are barriers; cf. Nichols 1992). Nor does an appeal to agriculture as a major reason for language spread provide a clear solution; a comparison of the Amazonian linguistic patchwork (where virtually all groups practice at least small-scale agriculture) to the far-reaching spread of Pama-Nyungan hunter-gatherers in Australia indicates that agriculture is in itself neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for language spread, although it may be implicated in some cases (cf. Bellwood 2001, Heggarty & Beresford-Jones 2010). Continent-internal linguistic distributions present additional puzzles, most notably relating to the concentration of diversity in the west (see e.g. Dahl et al. 2011, who suggests a correlation with initial migration routes), and the non-contiguous distributions of the few language families that are geographically widespread (see e.g. Hornborg 2005 and the papers by Walker and Heckenberger, this volume, on the Arawak diaspora).