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East India Company?
January 25, 2013 1:56 AM   Subscribe

A recent genetic study suggests that around 2200 BC explorers from India arrived and settled on the continent of Australia. "Unlike their European successors, these earlier settlers were assimilated by the locals. And they brought with them both technological improvements and one of Australia’s most iconic animals." [SLEconomist]
posted by Guernsey Halleck (25 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't know why a magazine on economics would be running this story, but this is all kinds of neat.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:09 AM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Run this past any Aboriginal Australians and you may get into an argument. Anything stating that the people came from anyplace but the land itself is just considered objectionable.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 2:22 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry, but any article written in the year 2013 that begins "the story of the ascent of man..." just doesn't deserve my attention and certainly doesn't change my opinion of the economist as ignorant of privilege.
posted by saucysault at 2:26 AM on January 25, 2013


I'm sorry, but any article written in the year 2013 that begins "the story of the ascent of man..." just doesn't deserve my attention...

It's an allusion to Charles Darwin's second book on evolution, which was called "The Descent of Man". Nothing particularly sinister going on there...
posted by sour cream at 2:47 AM on January 25, 2013 [13 favorites]


I've been reading about the astonishing origins of Scottish DNA. These discoveries are intriguing but they also give me the same sense of frustration as thinking about those important ancient texts which we know were on the shelves of the library of Alexandria, but which are lost. In this case, we are beginning to know that many complex, interesting and previously unsuspected human migrations took place in the past; but the actual stories are unknown and probably never will be known.
posted by Segundus at 3:02 AM on January 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


Run this past any Aboriginal Australians and you may get into an argument.

I have heard this said, but never actually seen it in action.
posted by Mezentian at 3:10 AM on January 25, 2013


I hope it's not a terrible derail... but at exactly the same time I have a tab open reading about the death of one Pugach, this story appears. It's not a name I'd ever heard before seeing the film. Weird. I love coincidences. Or is it......
posted by taff at 3:12 AM on January 25, 2013


So that's why the name was familiar. I was read about that this afternoon too. I'd not heard of the story either.
posted by Mezentian at 3:16 AM on January 25, 2013


Of course it's drape an aussie flag over you and the missus, eat meat, get shitfaced, listen to barnsey, fight someone, work on the monaro, go surfing, eat a pie, fight the missus, be a mate, play cricket with your mates - day tomorrow.
posted by mattoxic at 3:27 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've tried a few times (third time lucky?), but I'm just not sure from which angle I should tackle my response to this story, so bear with me if I'm a bit rambly and disorganised.

First off, while it's great to see Australian prehistory in the news and people interested in getting more information about it, I'm not sure that this story really changes anything in the way that the breathless write-ups in the popular press make it sound.

I mean, we've long known about the the big three changes during this time period that are mentioned in the Economist (microlith technology, new seed processing methods, introduction of the dingo) and explored the ways in which they changed the face of the continent in a relatively short timeframe. With the exception of the dingo, which we know 100% came from off-continent, the questions about how the changes arose have always focused on whether they were internal developments or introduced by outside forces. Now we have a little more evidence that points towards outside forces.

Note I'm saying "a little more evidence" and not "absolutely certain evidence". It's never really been in question that the top end of Australia has been in contact with other cultures over the last (ohIdunno) 30000 years. The large area around PHG/Indonesia was an absolute hotbed of prehistoric ocean-going technological inventions and advancement, and the first people to get to Australia had to have had ocean-going technology just to get there. So what is it if one more group made it to Australia, too, on top of the dozens of others who must have come and gone and come and gone?

Well, apparently this group stuck around long enough to leave behind some genes, for one thing. But again, the research isn't as cut and dried as the Economist makes it (lazy Friday so I went ahead and read the PNAS article). For one thing, the Australian sample size consisted of 12 people from the Northern Territory, and the researchers are trying to draw conclusions about arrivals travelling across the Indian Ocean who would have probably landed in Western Australia, instead. So why not get Western Australian genetic information? (probably because Aboriginal groups have decided to stop cooperating with genetic researchers by this point ...)

Back to where the genetic samples did come from, the northern end of Australia has always been an interesting place in regard to cultural, genetic, and linguistic differences from the entire rest of the continent. The rough line in this map separating the Pama-Nyungang languages from everything else has correlates in biology and technology as well, and has been the subject of discussion in regard to prehistoric cultural diversity on the continent and the extent to which outside forces helped shape it. Were these genetic samples taken from the northern end of NT? Well, then we won't be surprised to see outside influences (but they didn't even bother to use genetic samples from the coasts of PNG in their analyses; instead they went with Highland PNG populations, a curious choice!).

So (and trying to wrap this up but failing miserably), it's neat to add a little more data to the mix, but it's not really any major change. People who don't study prehistory often tend to think of prehistoric populations as all living in neat little bubbles of separation -- particularly when they were on islands -- but the history of influences and entanglement between what are often quite different groups goes back many many millennia.

Sohat it means is that now it looks like we can also add Indian populations into the mixing pot that happened up in the north, and we can possibly tie some technological changes to their arrival -- but, like just about everywhere else, what happened once the technological changes were taken up by the extant population is where things get interesting. And cynically, I wonder if this information will mostly be picked as another wedge to drive by racists and right-wingers as a way of further disenfranchising Aboriginal Australians in various ways.

tl;dr: Neat, but not earth-shattering. Aboriginal Australians and Australian archaeologists gonna keep on keepin' on like normal.
posted by barnacles at 3:31 AM on January 25, 2013 [22 favorites]


Katjusa Roquette: "Run this past any Aboriginal Australians and you may get into an argument. Anything stating that the people came from anyplace but the land itself is just considered objectionable."

Y'know, Aboriginal Australians aren't a singular mass of opinion on any subject. "Any Aboriginal Australians" might be just a bit too broad.
posted by barnacles at 3:33 AM on January 25, 2013 [8 favorites]


Looking at the map in the FA makes me wonder what might be discovered in the seas around Indonesia, like Doggerland.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:46 AM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


2200 BC explorers from India

Explorers? That's putting a modern view on things. More probably these were fisherman lost at sea, blown by storms and tides into the nether regions of the planet - which one can imagine has been happening since people starting building boats.
posted by three blind mice at 3:59 AM on January 25, 2013


Here is the actual paper, which is open access:
Genome-wide data substantiate Holocene gene flow from India to Australia (PDF)
The Australian continent holds some of the earliest archaeological evidence for the expansion of modern humans out of Africa, with initial occupation at least 40,000 y ago. It is commonly assumed that Australia remained largely isolated following initial colonization, but the genetic history of Australians has not been explored in detail to address this issue. Here, we analyze large-scale genotyping data from aboriginal Australians, New Guineans, island Southeast Asians and Indians. We find an ancient association between Australia, New Guinea, and the Mamanwa (a Negrito group from the Philippines), with divergence times for these groups estimated at 36,000 y ago, and supporting the view that these populations represent the descendants of an early “southern route” migration out of Africa, whereas other populations in the region arrived later by a separate dispersal. We also detect a signal indicative of substantial gene flow between the Indian populations and Australia well before European contact, contrary to the prevailing view that there was no contact between Australia and the rest of the world. We estimate this gene flow to have occurred during the Holocene, 4,230 y ago. This is also approximately when changes in tool technology, food processing, and the dingo appear in the Australian archaeological record, suggesting that these may be related to the migration from India.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:26 AM on January 25, 2013 [8 favorites]


It's somehow nice to know that Europeans weren't the first ones to cause a mass extinction by introducing a non-native species. I hope we can clone thylacines some day.

I don't quite get whether they're saying that cycad nuts were brought back to Kerala from Australia?
posted by XMLicious at 4:29 AM on January 25, 2013


Australia is an interesting case, because it resisted colonization by the southeast asian seafaring cultures... including some technologically advanced and expansionist ones, like the Majapahit and Srivijaya. These empires had advanced metalworking and navigation techniques, they were militarily accomplished (The Majapahit sent an enormous Mongol fleet packing), and had spread colonies as far afield as the Philippines - yet they made no attempt at all on establishing themselves on the nearby continent. These were tropical civilizations, so it's not like disease would take them out, either. You'd think they would at least set up trade outposts... yet as far south as they ever ventured was the western end of New Guinea.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:33 AM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


People who don't study prehistory often tend to think of prehistoric populations as all living in neat little bubbles of separation -- particularly when they were on islands -- but the history of influences and entanglement between what are often quite different groups goes back many many millennia.

Well....yeah. But hopefully more articles like this in general interest publications will teach them different? It's entirely possible for something to be a bit old hat to specialists in the field and still relavatory and interesting to the general public. Thus articles such as these. Scientists of all stripes sometimes seem to have this feeling --- "ugh, what a terrible, misleading headline! This isn't news! Anyone who's been studying this in the past ten years could tell you that X, Y, and Z have done similar work ...." When the whole point is that the vast majority of people haven't been studying this in the past ten years, or in fact, ever.

Any who, I thought it was interesting, since I know dick about the pre-history of Australia. I'm always glad to come to mefi and get more nuance from the experts here, though.
posted by Diablevert at 4:56 AM on January 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


Explorers? That's putting a modern view on things. More probably these were fisherman lost at sea

Why "more probably"? The article is explicit that the travelers from India came from a culture and time where ship-building technology was advanced enough for this. And in terms of human history, 4,000 years ago is modern. It's not like "explorer" is a thing that only came about in the last thousand years.

Anyway. This is really interesting. I've been on a pre-contact history of the Americas kick lately - looks like this may start me down another path. Thanks for the post.
posted by rtha at 5:32 AM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm drunk. Forgive me. It's Friday night, no it's not, it's technically Saturday morning. I can't concentrate on the FA.

Of course it's drape an aussie flag over you and the missus, eat meat, get shitfaced, listen to barnsey, fight someone, work on the monaro, go surfing, eat a pie, fight the missus, be a mate, play cricket with your mates - day tomorrow.

posted by mattoxic


Thank you for reminding me that we are actually hosting Barnsey tomorrow night. *goes to sit in a corner, sobbing that the awesome local talent we have is constantly overlooked in favour of Barnsey. And James Reyne, but that's another story.*
posted by malibustacey9999 at 5:38 AM on January 25, 2013


Cool post. It is very interesting to see these studies being done using genetics to track human migration, animal evolution etc. The technology is relatively new and primitive so it will be even more interesting to see what we can discover over the coming decades.
posted by caddis at 6:56 AM on January 25, 2013


I liked this article, but I share barnacles' skepticism about the just-so nature of the story told here. The reality of human migration is much more complex than our simplistic views of isolated populations. And we're at the absolute beginning of DNA identification technologies that let us put some science to the origins and migrations of various populations. Finding Indian DNA in an old-but-not-too-old migration to Australia is fascinating. But it's only a tiny piece of the story, not the whole thing.

The connection of the biological migration to the technological innovation is what interests me most in this story. The most amazing part about Australian Aborigines to me is the relative lack of technology. Is it really true that there was a jump from crude stone tools to fine stone tools, and just around 2000 BC? Did the transition happen the same way it's happened in the archaeological record of other civilizations? How discrete is the difference?
posted by Nelson at 7:44 AM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Run this past any Aboriginal Australians and you may get into an argument. Anything stating that the people came from anyplace but the land itself is just considered objectionable.

Well, sure, but tell an Indian that Varanasi isn't the oldest city in the world, and you get the same argument.

Tell an American fundamentalist Christian that Jesus didn't speak English, ditto.

Tell a French person that French cuisine isn't the most sophisticated in the world, ditto.

There are always going to be chauvinists who refuse to look outside their own culture at bald reality, to even acknowledge that there are different ways of seeing the world.
posted by Sara C. at 12:35 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


On a more serious note, my concern about this narrative (people arrived from India, bringing new technology that indigenous people definitely could not have developed on their own) is how much it plays into old stereotypes about Aboriginal peoples.

It's also only a slightly more sophisticated retelling of "aliens built the pyramids".
posted by Sara C. at 12:37 PM on January 25, 2013


Since this is probably the closest we'll get to an Australia Day thread (I'm too lazy to do one on Batman... no, not that one) I may as well share this NSFW ditty, which is pretty much the modern Australia Day experience compressed into four minutes: Australia, Yeah C*nt.
Censored it for ya.
posted by Mezentian at 4:51 PM on January 25, 2013


Katjusa Roquette: Run this past any Aboriginal Australians and you may get into an argument. Anything stating that the people came from anyplace but the land itself is just considered objectionable.
Millions of Americans believe that a woman ate an apple and got a dude kicked out of a garden party, then all their interbred children (including the ones that married giants' daughters) drowned except for one lucky DIY boatbuilder and his family.

They're wrong, too.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:14 PM on January 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


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