Anthropology Friday: Pygmies and Papuans pt 2

Papuan man accompanied by two Tapiro Pygmies, from Wollaston’s Pygmies and Papuans

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are reading A. F. R. Wollaston’s Pygmies and Papuans, published in 1912. Wollaston’s primary purpose in traveling to Papua New Guinea was to study the birds (as was Jared Diamond’s,) but he decided to also write about the people he met.

One of the parts of this book I found most amusing was Wollaston’s struggle to learn the language of the local Mimika Papuans:

“It has been stated in the previous chapters that the natives told us this or that, and that we asked them for information about one thing or another. From this the reader must not conclude that we acquired a very complete knowledge of the native language, for that, unfortunately, was not the case, and even at the end of the fifteen months that we spent in their country we were not able to converse with them. Lieutenant Cramer and I compiled a vocabulary of nearly three hundred words, and we talked a good deal with the people, but we never reached the position of being able to exchange ideas on any single subject. …

“It is unfortunate that there is no common language along the S. coast, nor even a language with words common to all the dialects in use. We were visited on one occasion by the Dutch Assistant Resident from Fak-fak; the native interpreter who came with him, and who knew all the native dialects of the Fak-fak district, could not understand one word of the Mimika language. On another occasion some natives from Mimika were taken down by steamer to Merauke, the Government post in S.W. New Guinea, not far from the boundary of British Papua, and there they found the language of the natives quite unintelligible to them.

“So we found ourselves confronted with the task of learning a language with neither grammar, dictionary nor interpreter. This may not seem to be an insuperable difficulty, nor is it perhaps where Europeans and educated people are concerned, but with Papuans it is a very different problem. The first thing to do—and very few of them would even grasp the idea—is to make them understand that you wish to learn their words. You may point at an object and look intelligent and expectant, but they are slow to take your meaning, and they soon tire of giving information. The facial expression, which amongst us conveys even to a deaf man an interrogation, means nothing to them, nor has the sideways shake of the head a negative meaning to Papuans.”

Numbers

“In trying to learn a new language of this kind most people (I imagine) would begin, as we did, with the numerals. But our researches in this direction did not take us very far, for we made the interesting discovery that they have words for one and two only; ínakwa (one), jamaní (two). This is not to say that they cannot reckon beyond two, for they can, by using the fingers and thumbs, and beginning always with the thumb of the right hand, reckon with tolerable accuracy up to ten. For numbers above ten they use the toes, never, so far as we observed, two or three toes, but always all the toes together to indicate a large but uncertain number. Sometimes they opened and closed the fingers of both hands two or three times and uttered the word takirí, which appeared to mean “many.” They did not, as some people do, use the word which means “hand” to indicate five or a quantity of about that number.”

EvX: For more on societies with very few words for numbers, see Caleb Everet’s Numbers and the Making of Us. It is interesting to note what a wide variety of numerical systems exist in the world–not only systems that employ unfamiliar bases like five, 20, 60, or twelve, or linguistic systems with a triplet form (just as we have a plural), but also systems in which numbers are highly constrained, like that of the Mimiko, who have only the numerals for one and two (plus use of their hands and toes,) or more extremely, like the Piraha, who have no numbers at all.

Continuing:

“With patience we learnt a great number of substantives, the names of animals, the parts of the body, the various possessions of the natives and so forth, and with more difficulty we learnt some of the active verbs. But when we came to abstract ideas, our researches ceased abruptly for lack of the question words, who, how, where, when, etc.; these we were never able to learn, and it is impossible to act them.

“Thus we were never able to find out what they thought of various things; we could point to the moon and be told its name, but we were never able to say, “What is the moon?” We learnt the names of lightning and thunder, but we never knew who they thought produced them. We could not find out where their stone axes came from, nor how old they were, nor who made them; and a hundred other questions, which we should have liked to put, remained unanswered.”

An Amusing Mistake

“Even the apparently simple matter of enquiring the names of places is not so easy as one would think. When the first party went up the Mimika to Parimau they pointed to the huts and asked what the village was called; the answer given was “Tupué,” meaning I believe, the name of the family who lived in the huts pointed at. For several months we called the place Tupué, and the name appeared in various disguises in the English newspapers.

When I was at Parimau in July, it occurred to me to doubt the name of Tupué, which we never heard the natives use, so I questioned a man elaborately. Pointing in the direction of Wakatimi, I said in his language: “Many houses, Wakatimi,” and he nodded assent; then pointing in the direction of another village that we had visited I said: “Many houses, Imah,” to which he agreed; then I said. “Many houses,” and pointed towards Parimau. This performance was repeated three times before he understood my intention and supplied the word “Parimau,” and then he shouted the whole story across the river to the people in the village who received it with shouts of laughter, and well they might. It was as if a foreigner, who had been living for six months in a place which he was accustomed to call Smith, enquired again one day what its name was and found that it was London. …

Physical Features

“The skin of the Mimika native is a very dark brown, almost rusty black, but a dark colour without any of the gloss seen in the skin of the African negro. Not infrequently we saw men of a lighter, nearly yellow, colour, and in the Wakatimi district there were three pure albinos, a man, a woman and a child. The man and woman were covered with blotches of a pinkish pigment and were peculiarly disagreeable to look at, the child, a sucking infant, and the offspring of black parents, was as white as any European baby, and was called, out of compliment to us, “Tuana.”

“The hair is black and thick and frizzly; it never, or seldom grows long, so you do not see the ornamental coiffures characteristic of the natives of some other parts of the island … The hair of young children is often quite fair, but it becomes dark as they grow up; some of the adults have the custom, common in other places, of dyeing the hair yellow with lime. …

“Tattooing, in the proper sense of the term, is unknown to the Mimika Papuans, but a great number of them practise cicatrisation or scarring. The usual places for these markings are the buttocks and the outer side of the upper (usually the left) arm. …

“The average height of men measured at Wakatimi and Parimau is 5 feet 6 inches. … Such a height is small compared with that of many races, but the first impression you get of the Papuans is that they are tall, for they hold themselves well, and all naked people look taller than those who go clothed. Their legs are thin and rather meagre, due in a great measure to the large proportion of their lives that is spent in canoes, but they walk with a good swinging gait and cover the ground easily.”

The river at high tide

Childhood

“Beyond question, the happiest time in the lives of the Papuans is their childhood, when they are free to play from morning to night and need not take part in the ceaseless search for food, which occupies so much of the time of their elders. As infants they are carried on the backs of their mothers and very often of their fathers, secured by a wide strap of bark cloth, the ends of which are tied across the carrier’s chest. It is very seldom that you hear them cry and they appear to give very little trouble; their mothers are very careful of the cleanliness of the infants. Very early in life they begin to walk and almost as soon they learn to swim. In fine weather they often spend the greater part of the day in the river and it is a very pretty sight to see a crowd of little Papuans playing together in the water. … They very soon become powerful swimmers, and I remember one day seeing a small boy, who cannot have been more than eight years old, swim across a river in tremendous flood, while the party of men who were with him had to seek a place where they could safely swim across half a mile lower down.

GAMES OF THE CHILDREN

“There are a number of games too that they play on dry land: they play the universal game of lying in wait for your enemy and suddenly pouncing out on him; they have great battles in which they are armed with miniature bows and arrows, and reed stems take the place of spears, and shrill yells make up for the lack of bloodshed. …

Society

“Generally speaking, one would say that the society of the Mimika Papuans is a group of small families. It cannot by any means be described as a socialistic community; with one exception there is no sign of community of property, but it is rather a case of every man for himself, or (more accurately) of every family for itself. A canoe belongs to the family of the man who made it; the coconut trees, which grow here and there along the lower Mimika, do not belong to the community but to individuals, presumably the men or some of the men who planted them. … The exception mentioned is seen when game is brought in by the hunters; the meat, as I observed on several occasions, is distributed to every house in the village. …

“From the description of them which has been given in this and the two preceding chapters it will be seen that the conditions of life of the Papuans are as primitive as those of any people now living in the world. There are very few other places, where you can find a people who neither make nor possess any metal and who have no knowledge of pottery. The only vessels that they have for holding water are scraped-out coconuts and simple pieces of bamboo. Water boiling they had never seen before we came among them. Their implements and weapons are, as I have shown, of the most primitive kind, and their ornaments are of the rudest possible description.

Cultivation of the soil is only practised by the people of one or two villages, and even then it produces but a very small proportion of their food, so it follows that most of their time and energies are devoted to procuring the necessaries of life.

STRUGGLE FOR EXISTENCE

“The struggle for existence is keen enough, the birth-rate is low and the rate of infant mortality is, I believe, very high. Nor do diseases spare them; syphilis is exceedingly prevalent, and was probably introduced by Chinese and Malay traders to the West end of the island, whence it has spread along the coast. Tuberculosis is happily absent, but two natives of Wakatimi were suffering from what appeared to be certainly leprosy. Skin diseases, notably tinea imbricata, are very common; and almost every person appears to suffer occasionally from fever of one sort or another.

“But in spite of all these drawbacks the Papuans of the Mimika are not such a very miserable people. They are strong, those of them that survive the ordeals of infancy and sickness; they have food in plenty to eat, if they choose to exert themselves sufficiently to obtain it; they have their amusements, songs and dances; and the manner of their lives is suited to the conditions of the country in which they live. It is this last consideration which ought ultimately to determine their fate: they live in a wretchedly poor country which is constantly liable to devastating floods, and their habit of wandering from one place to another, where food may be obtained, is the only way of life suitable to the physical and climatic conditions of the country.

The case against “civilizing”

“Any attempt to “civilise” them must inevitably destroy their primitive independence, and if it succeeded in establishing the people in settled communities it would reduce them at many seasons to absolute starvation. We were visited once by the Director of the Sacred Heart Mission at Toeal, which has done admirable work amongst the natives of the Ké Islands and at one or two places in New Guinea itself. When he had seen the people and the nature of the country and had been told something of their habits, he decided that the Mimika was not, at present at all events, a proper field for missionary enterprise. Setting aside all other considerations, one dares to hope that such an interesting people may for a long time be left undisturbed; they do no harm to their neighbours and the effects on them of civilising influences would be at the best uncertain.”

Anthropology Friday: Pygmies and Papuans, by Wollaston pt1

Tapiro Pygmy, Papua New Guinea, from Pygmies and Papuans

Welcome to Anthropology Friday. Today we are reading A. F. R. Wollaston’s Pygmies and Papuans, published in 1912. Wollaston’s primary purpose in traveling to Papua New Guinea was to study the birds (as was Jared Diamond’s,) but he decided to also write about the people he met.

He taught at King’s College, Cambridge, until he was murdered by an insane student in 1930. He was descended, it appears, from a distinguished line of Wollastons.

But enough about A.F.R; on with PNG (though first we’ll be stopping in Java):

“During the month of December, while stores were being accumulated, and the steamer was being prepared for our use, we had leisure to visit, and in the case of some of us to revisit, some of the most interesting places in Java. …

“Some idea of the progress which has been made may be learnt from the fact that, whereas at the beginning of the last century the population numbered about four millions, there are to-day nearly ten times that number. Wherever you go you see excellent roads, clean, and well-ordered villages and a swarming peasant population, quiet and industrious and apparently contented with their lot.

“There are between thirty and forty volcanoes in the island, many of them active, and the soil is extraordinarily rich and productive, three crops in the rice districts being harvested in rather less than two years. So fertile is the land that in many places the steepest slopes of the hills have been brought under cultivation by an ingenious system of terracing and irrigation in such a way that the higher valleys present the appearance of great amphitheatres rising tier above tier of brilliantly green young rice plants or of drooping yellow heads of ripening grain. …

“One of the features of life in the Dutch East Indies, which first strikes the attention of an English visitor, is the difference in the relation between Europeans and natives from those which usually obtain in British possessions as shown by the enormous number of half-castes. Whilst we were still at Batavia the feast of the Eve of St. Nicholas, which takes the place of our Christmas, occurred. In the evening the entire “white” population indulged in a sort of carnival; the main streets and restaurants were crowded, bands played and carriages laden with parents and their children drove slowly through the throng. The spectacle, a sort of “trooping of the colours,” was a most interesting one to the onlooker, for one saw often in the same family children showing every degree of colour from the fairest Dutch hair and complexion to the darkest Javanese. It is easy to understand how this strong mixture of races has come about, when one learns that Dutchmen who come out to the East Indies, whether as civilian or military officials or as business men, almost invariably stay for ten years without returning to Europe. They become in that time more firmly attached to the country than is the case in colonies where people go home at shorter intervals, and it is not uncommon to meet Dutchmen who have not returned to Holland for thirty or forty years. It is not the custom to send children back to Europe when they reach the school age; there are excellent government schools in all the larger towns, and it often happens that men and women grow up and marry who have never been to Europe in their lives. Thus it can be seen how a large half-caste population is likely to be formed. The half-castes do not, as in British India, form a separate caste, but are regarded as Europeans, and there are many instances of men having more or less of native blood in their veins reaching the highest civilian and military rank.”

Papua New Guinea

“Even among those Papuans who are pure-blooded—in so far as one may use that expression in describing any human race—there are very considerable varieties of appearance, but it is still possible to describe a type to which all of them conform in the more important particulars. The typical Papuan is rather tall and is usually well-built. The legs of the low country people are somewhat meagre, as is usually the case among people who spend much of their time in canoes, whilst those of the hill tribes are well developed. The hands and feet are large. The colour of the skin varies from a dark chocolate colour to a rusty black, but it seems to be never of the shining ebony blackness of the African negro. … Short hard hair is also found frequently on the chest and on the limbs, but on the face it is scanty and frequently altogether absent. …

“It may, however, be said without fear of contradiction that no person, who has had experience of Malays and of Papuans, could believe for a moment that they are anything but two very distinct races of men. The origin of the Papuans is not definitely known, and the existence in different parts of the island of small people, who are possibly of Negrito stock, suggests that the Papuans were not the original inhabitants of New Guinea.”

 

Wollaston’s boat approaches the island

“The shore was low and featureless, and it was impossible to identify the mouths of the rivers from the very inaccurate chart. It was not safe for the Nias to approach the land closely on account of the shoal water, so Capt. Van Herwerden dropped anchor … and sent the steam launch towards an inlet, where we could see huts, to gather information. … they hailed a canoe which ventured within speaking distance, and by repeating several times “Mimika,” the only word of their language that we knew at that time, learnt that we had overshot our destination by a few miles.

“That canoe, it should be noted, was remarkable on account of two of its crew. One of them held aloft an ancient Union Jack; the other was conspicuously different from the scores of men in the canoes about us, who were all frankly in a bare undress, by wearing an old white cotton jacket fastened by a brass button which was ornamented with the head of Queen Victoria. How the flag and the coat and the button came to that outlandish place will never be known, but it is certain that they must have passed through very many hands before they came there, for certainly no Englishman had ever been there before. …

“We were rather amused, when we came to the first bank of shingle, by the natives who were with us bringing us gifts of stones, as though they were something new and rare: probably they thought that as we came, for all they knew, from the sea, we had never seen such things before.”

An interesting observation on the habits/lifestyle of hunter-gatherers vs farmers:

“After spending a night on a sand bank from which we were very nearly washed away by a sudden flood, we paddled leisurely down the river and came in one day again to Obota. Though the two places are so close together and communication between them is very frequent, the inhabitants of Obota are a much better lot of people than those of Wakatimi. The Obota men, who came up the river with us, worked steadily for several days, a thing we never could persuade the Wakatimi men to do, and, a more striking sign of their superiority, the Obota people cultivate the soil, whereas the Wakatimi people never do anything of the kind.”

Tobacco

“The distribution of tobacco in New Guinea is rather a puzzling question. There are many places on the coast where its use was unknown until quite recently, while at the same time the mountain people, for example, in the Arfak Mountains and on the upper reaches of the Fly and Kaiserin Augusta Rivers, have been accustomed to cultivate it and to barter it with their neighbours in the lowlands. The Tapiro pygmy people, who live in the mountains, cultivate tobacco and exchange it with the Papuans of the upper Mimika who grow none themselves. These facts have led some people to suppose that the tobacco plant is indigenous in New Guinea.

“The people of Obota were rich in worldly possessions, for as we walked through the village we saw two Chinese brass gongs and a large porcelain pot, which they told us came from “Tarete.” It may be that at some time a Malay or Arab trader from Ternate came over to this part of the coast, but it is impossible to know; perhaps the things had been stolen and exchanged from one village to another, from the West end of the island, which is often visited by Ternate traders.”

Marginal Horticulture

“As well as coconuts the Mimika people have also bananas, papayas (Carica papaya), water-melons and pumpkins, all of them of a very inferior kind. It cannot be said that they cultivate these fruits; they occasionally get a banana shoot and plant it in the ground by the riverside, where it may or may not grow and produce fruit, but they make no clearings and take very little trouble to ensure the life of the plant. The papayas and the melons and pumpkins are sometimes seen growing about the native dwellings; but they, too, seem to be there more by accident than by any design on the part of the people. At Obota we found a few pineapples, which were probably the descendants of some that were brought to the Mimika by M. Dumas a few years earlier.”

EvX: As we discussed recently, humans likely did not transition directly from pure hunter gathering to pure agriculture within the space of a few years, but rather spent thousands of years developing a wide variety of different cultivation methods. Surely among the earliest was this haphazard variety in which fortuitously sprouted seeds are buried and then left to fend for themselves. Some clever ancient man might also have undertaken to bring water to an already established but thirsty plant.

But there’s a big difference between occasionally planting a seed and full-scale agriculture. The latter requires preparing plots of land, removing weeds, planting, watering, tilling, etc. Even a small garden requires a great deal of regular work.

Hunter-gatherers probably didn’t abandon their mobile lifestyles immediately after planting the first handful seeds they wanted to grow. It seems more likely they continued pursuing other ways of finding food while they waited for the plants to grow; it likely took centuries or millennia for the cultural and mental traits found in fully agricultural societies to develop.

 

 

Wed Open Thread

CIA Analyst Who Interrogated Saddam Hussein Just Blew the Lid Off the US ‘Official Story’:

Writing on his book, Debriefing The President: The Interrogation Of Saddam Hussein, for the Daily Mail, Nixon offered acrid criticism regarding Bush’s leadership, saying the former president heard “only what he wanted to hear” — including that Iraq had somehow been responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001.

“Look at who was involved,” Nixon recalled the Iraqi leader telling the interrogators. “What countries did they come from? Saudi Arabia. And this [ringleader] Muhammad Atta, was he an Iraqi? No. He was Egyptian. Why do you think I was involved in the attacks?”

In fact, Nixon noted, “Saddam had actually believed 9/11 would bring Iraq and America closer because Washington would need his secular government to help fight fundamentalism. How woefully wrong he had been.”

I don’t know this website, so I can’t vouch for its veracity, and these days, everything seems a little questionable (wow that is an awfully artistically staged photo of that Russian ambassador’s assassination.)

"violent"
I think we define “violent” differently.

Of course, we know that Iraq had no WMDs to speak of and we know the country descended into chaos and anarchy and ISIS crap. We know that thousands of people died so Americans could vent their hate at *someone* who looked vaguely like their enemies.

I woke up at 9 am on 9-11 to my alarm clock radio telling me that the Twin Towers had just been hit, and honestly, my first thought was, “some poor unrelated country is going to get bombed.” I figured Iraq was highly likely.

The attack on Afghanistan I can understand, but Iraq was unjustified and I was against the war even then, including participation in anti-war protests. I did not want to see Americans or Iraqis dying.

I have no respect for the fuckers who led us into that war, and no respect for the fuckers trying to start shit with Russia now.

The grand lie of weapons of mass destruction — and Judith Miller’s utterly false reports in the New York Times suggesting stockpiles of chemical weapons — are arguably the most deadly ‘fake news’ gaffe in U.S. media history. …

Nixon emphasized it wasn’t as if Saddam Hussein were a saint, but the profound mischaracterization of the Iraqi leader had appalling consequences.

“I do not wish to imply that Saddam was innocent,” Nixon writes. “He was a ruthless dictator who plunged his region into chaos and bloodshed. But in hindsight, the thought of having an ageing and disengaged Saddam in power seems almost comforting in comparison with the wasted effort of our brave men and women in uniform and the rise of Islamic State, not to mention the £2.5 trillion spent to build a new Iraq.”

So, what do you guys think of the assassination of the Russian diplomat in Turkey? What’s going to happen? Will there be open hostilities against Turkey? Will Russia and the US team up?

spread of spoke-wheeled chariots
spread of spoke-wheeled chariots, in years ago

I also enjoyed Physical Anthropology in 1950.

Now, you guys have left so many excellent comments, it’s getting tough to look back through them all, much less pick the best. Iffen and Unknown128 have been having an interesting discussion of Russian history over on the Classics post; With The Thoughts You’d Be Thinkin left a link to a very interesting documentary/footage of first contact between whites and people living in the interior of Papua New Guinea:

Figured this might interest you, a documentary about Michael “Mick” Leahy and his brothers, gold prospectors and explorers who made first contact with the Highland tribes of Papua New Guinea in the 1930. The full documentary includes footage of the first encounters and interviews with the tribesmen and the surviving Leahy brothers decades later.

Clip:
http://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries/first-contact/clip1/

Full:
https://youtu.be/Kvt9F0KqelM

So, do you guys think I should read Audre Lorde for next Cathedral Round-Up, to see if she is a fitting replacement for Shakespeare?

YES Two Out of Africa Events! (Also, Aborigines)

I’ve long suspected (given the archaeological evidence, like 80,000 year old human remains in China,) that there were two Out of Africa (OOA) events–an early one that headed east, toward Australia, and a later one that headed everywhere (including Australia)–and now it looks like this has been genetically confirmed:

Graphic created by the Estonian genetics team cited in the NY Times article. Their full article: Genomic analyses inform on migration events during the peopling of Eurasia
Graphic created by the Estonian genetics team cited in the NY Times article. Their full article: Genomic analyses inform on migration events during the peopling of Eurasia

Isn’t this a great graphic? My hat’s off to the Estonians. Beautiful work.

Graphic created by the Estonian genetics team cited in the NY Times article. Their full article: Genomic analyses inform on migration events during the peopling of Eurasia

Here’s another one they made (sadly small) with less color and more detail on the Eurasian lines. (IIRC, Chinese have more Neanderthal ancestry than Europeans, so technically the schematic ought to be a wee bit more complicated than this, but it’s already complicated enough and this is a solid general overview.)

It might just be the sleep dep + lots of coffee talking, but I am so excited about this.

Some quotes from the NY Times article:

In Israel, for example, researchers found a few distinctively modern human skeletons that are between 120,000 and 90,000 years old. In Saudi Arabia and India, sophisticated tools date back as far as 100,000 years.

Last October, Chinese scientists reported finding teeth belonging to Homo sapiens that are at least 80,000 years old and perhaps as old as 120,000 years. …

Examining their data separately, all three groups came to the same conclusion: People everywhere descend from a single migration of early humans from Africa. The estimates from the studies point to an exodus somewhere between 80,000 and 50,000 years. …

n Papua New Guinea, Dr. Metspalu and his colleagues found, 98 percent of each person’s DNA can be traced to that single migration from Africa. But the other 2 percent seemed to be much older.

Dr. Metspalu concluded that all people in Papua New Guinea carry a trace of DNA from an earlier wave of Africans who left the continent as long as 140,000 years ago, and then vanished.

Obviously, in science, replication and caution are key. Don’t get too excited. These results might turn out to be wrong–sometimes samples get contaminated or data coded incorrectly and we get results that turn out to be completely wrong. And, okay, this isn’t really “huge” in the grand scheme of things–we’re only talking about 2% of Papuans’ ancestors, not, like, 40% of them. But it does explain all of those anomalously old findings.

Now someone needs to explain the Red Deer Cave People:

The Red Deer Cave People were the most recently known prehistoric Hominin population that did not look like modern humans. Fossils dated to between 14,500 and 11,500 years old were found in Red Deer Cave and Longlin Cave in China. Having a mix of archaic and modern features, they are (tentatively) thought to be a separate species of humans that persisted until recent times and became extinct without contributing to the gene pool of modern humans.[1]

On a related note, we have some awesome news about Aborigine DNA/language trees: A genomic history of Australia and Why Australia is home to one of the Largest Language Families in the World. (Well duh it’s because Aborigines spent thousands of years as tiny bands of hunter gatherers, in which each isolated band started developing its own language.) These articles have an oddly inverted structure, (burying the lead, I guess,) so let’s rearrange the abstract for coherency:

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. … 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.

(kya = thousand years ago). So about 10-32 thousand years ago, one group of Australians conquered all of the other groups of Australians.

The science article notes:

To the researchers’ amazement, the genetic pattern mirrored the linguistic one. “It’s incredible that those two trees match. None of us expected that,” says paleoanthropologist Michael Westaway of Griffith University, Nathan, in Australia, a co-author on the Willerslev paper. “But it’s confusing: The [genetic splits] date to 30,000 years ago or more but the linguistic divisions are only maybe 6000 years old.”

Willerslev says he first thought the languages must be much older than thought. “But the linguists told me, ‘no way.'”

Both types of data also show that the population expanded from the northeast to the southwest. This migration occurred within the last 10,000 years and likely came in successive waves, Bowern says, in which existing languages were overlaid by new ones. This expansion also seems to correspond with a stone tool innovation called a backed edge blade. But the accompanying gene flow was just a trickle, suggesting that only a few people had an outsize cultural impact, Willerslev says. “It’s like you had two men entering a village, convincing everyone to speak a new language and adopt new tools, having a little sexual interaction, then disappearing,” he says. Then the new languages continued to develop, following the older patterns of population separation. “It’s really strange but it’s the best way we can interpret the data at this stage.”

Three things going on here. 1. The group from the north conquered the group from the south, raped their women, and imposed their language. They were able to do this because they had better weapons (“backed edge blades.”) But the group from the north was not very big, and so did not leave a very big genetic signature.

2. They conquered an existing population structure, at which point their language got absorbed into that structure, probably picking up some linguistic substrate from the groups’ previous languages along the way. Since most people learn language from their parents, it’s not too surprising to find cases where language and genetics line up. (Note that people do not always learn languages from their parents.)

3. Intellectuals are kind of naive.

The other really interesting thing here is that the linguistics team came to their conclusions by feeding a big database of Aboriginal words into a computer and having it run similar algorithms to the ones geneticists use for examining human ancestry (see the lovely graphics above.) I’ve been wondering for a long time why they don’t just do this, and am excited that they finally are.

Now please someone put all of the languages + reconstructed proto-langauges into the computer and find the most likely trees.

(Sorry, Nick. The regularly scheduled Anthropology Friday is going to have to wait a week. There just aren’t enough days.)