Gene-mapping Dreamtime
March 19, 2017 12:07 PM   Subscribe

Over the last decade, bearing out what archeological evidence already implied, several DNA studies (previously) have established that Australian Aboriginal peoples belonged to a single migrant group who departed Africa around 72,000 years ago, arriving in Sahul about twenty millenia later. Now a new study of mitochondrial DNA maps out the philogeography of this first peopling of Australia, showing the group rapidly encircling the continent - and then essentially staying put, each subgroup in their area... for fifty thousand years.

At publication of the new study, Kaurna Elder Dr. Lewis O'Brien, one of the original DNA sample donors and now advisor to the project, said: “Aboriginal people have always known that we have been on our land since the start of our time. But it is important to have science show that to the rest of the world."

The extraordinary resilience of the Aboriginal civilization's nomadic sedentism is underlined by Prof. Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide's Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, project leader of the study: "[They] were able to survive in one area with a fixed set of resources for up to 50,000 years. Nowhere else in world have humans been able to demonstrate an ability to do that. We don’t have a great record of living in balance with anything. This study provides compelling support for the remarkable Aboriginal cultural connection to country, the enormous amount of respect, knowledge and affinity Aboriginal people must have had with the land, and to specific areas of land, to survive."
Cooper believes the absence of farming might have been the key to different groups of Aboriginal people living harmoniously for so long.

Further reading:

- NYT profile of the leader of the 2011 study, evolutionary biologist Eske Willerslev, director of the Centre for Ancient Genetics at the University of Copenhagen.

- An interview with Prof. Cooper on the background and implications of the latest DNA study.

- A 2015 plant DNA study bearing out Aboriginal legend: Outback palms: Aboriginal myth meets DNA analysis

- How and when such a singular origin then saw the emergence of one of the largest language families in the world, remains something of a mystery.

- Future research will focus on investigate paternal lineages and information from the nuclear genome. And while the study results cannot be used for land claim issues (insufficient geographical resolution) or as a test of Aboriginality (which is a cultural, rather than genetic, association), it should go a long way to bridging "the cultural gulf apparent when Aboriginal people are talking to politicians or non-Aboriginal people about the importance of land ownership.”
posted by progosk (20 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
The link for the 2015 plant DNA study has an extra " 02.04.15" tacked on the end. Mods, please edit.
posted by fings at 12:56 PM on March 19


[Fixed!]
posted by cortex at 1:24 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]


How and when such a singular origin then saw the emergence of one of the largest language families in the world, remains something of a mystery.

Wouldn't that be completely eplained by this?:

Now a new study of mitochondrial DNA maps out the philogeography of this first peopling of Australia, showing the group rapidly encircling the continent - and then essentially staying put, each subgroup in their area... for fifty thousand years.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:45 PM on March 19 [2 favorites]


The link for Sahul goes to a Wikipedia disambiguation page; which actual page did you want to link to?
posted by languagehat at 2:12 PM on March 19


a single migrant group who departed Africa around 72,000 years ago, arriving in Sahul about twenty millenia later

"Mom, are we there yet?"
posted by XMLicious at 2:16 PM on March 19 [2 favorites]


super interesting. the interpretation of these data is controversial but one idea is that the linguistic diversity - which is huge - in such a relatively small geographic region - suggests that the development and maintenance of languages is tied to its role in identifying social groups (I speak X so I'm part of the X people not the Y people who speak Y).
posted by bluesky43 at 2:27 PM on March 19


a single migrant group who departed Africa around 72,000 years ago, arriving in Sahul about twenty millenia later

Makes 40 years in the desert look pretty tame in comparison.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 2:42 PM on March 19 [4 favorites]


Oops, modfix for Sahul, please?
posted by progosk at 3:35 PM on March 19


the linguistic diversity - which is huge - in such a relatively small geographic region - suggests that the development and maintenance of languages is tied to its role in identifying social groups (I speak X so I'm part of the X people not the Y people who speak Y

Well yes, but that's not unique to Australia. In fact I suspect it might be less so in Australia than many other places. Many, if not most, Indigenous Australian people were multilingual and those who speak traditional languages generally still are. There is a fair amount of exogamy, so many people have a mother's language and a father's language. Also there's a strong connection of land to country, ie when you are here, you speak this language, but when you travel into the hills over there, you speak that language, and when you visit the neighboring group on the coast, you speak the language of the the coast. This is partly politeness to the people you are visiting, but many people will still switch languages even if they are only with a group of their own family. It's about paying your respects to the land, with which the language is closely linked.

I'm not sure we need an explanation for the diversity, actually. They've been here long enough that you'd expect astounding diversity. If anything, we need explanations for why Pama-Nyungan languages cover so much of the continent and why even non-PN languages are not more different grammatically and phonologically, than they are.

I assume the answer is continuous migration and some amount of regular nomadic routes, but that's the stuff I and my linguistic colleagues are mostly interested in knowing more about.
posted by lollusc at 3:59 PM on March 19 [17 favorites]


[fixed link]
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:00 PM on March 19


Not that this study isn't cool. It is super cool and I am very excited about it. I just wanted to clarify that the study isn't marvelling at linguistic diversity so much as at the fact that most Australian languages are very closely related (Pama-Nyungan) and that that's bizarre when they've been here for so long. Usually we can't detect language relationships that are older than about 12,000 years, because too much has changed and been replaced. So either Pama-Nyungan languages had a much slower rate of change than any others we know, or it's a recent expansion, in which case, what were people speaking in most of Australia for the first 40 thousand years?
posted by lollusc at 4:06 PM on March 19 [5 favorites]


Is Australian language diversity necessarily greater than the diversity was elsewhere before the invention of empires? We know that lots of European languages have basically disappeared without a trace, others with only a few words, and that's for languages that existed in historical times and sometimes among literate people. Once empires and literacy and roads were invented there was a lot of minority language erasure, but before that time there was no general mechanism to erase differences in dialects and you'd expect to find new languages every few hundred miles.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:24 PM on March 19


A faceted NITV opinion piece by Luke Pearson (of IndigenousX) on the general significance for Aboriginal people of these DNA studies: What is a 'continuous culture'... and are Aboriginal cultures the oldest?
posted by progosk at 2:22 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


How definitive are the genetic results? Are these dates and lineages certain, or will they all be revised again in a few years as new science / new data comes to light?
posted by Nelson at 10:37 AM on March 20


Wait, how come the Kaurna elder and DNA sample donor is white?
posted by Tom-B at 10:40 AM on March 20


This might help: Who is 'Aboriginal'?
posted by progosk at 11:05 AM on March 20 [7 favorites]


The new study is mitochondrial DNA; that passes matrilinearly. If the donor's mother, her mother, etc are all indigenous to Australia it doesn't much matter about the fathers' genetics. Just guessing though, I don't have a reference for this donor's family history.
posted by Nelson at 11:22 AM on March 20


Is Australian language diversity necessarily greater than the diversity was elsewhere before the invention of empires?

Exactly. No, it's not. In fact it is less diverse than even contemporary places like e.g. Papua New Guinea.
posted by lollusc at 6:38 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


Ah, I had misunderstood your point. Are there any good theories to explain this? E.g. (wildly speculating here) flat terrain and people travelled much more than one would expect?

Second theory: Trained cockatoos as bearers of linguistic uniformity ...
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:01 PM on March 20


Sure, yes, people travelling a lot would be a good part of the explanation. But it seems like this study suggests people were more sedentary for most of the 50k years than we had thought. Which is cool and weird.

(And while yes, much of Australia is pretty flat, it's not exactly amenable to lots of travelling in other ways: climate, water access, etc. Of course, we know that many Aboriginal people walked long journeys despite this, but it does mean we can't say Australia's geography made it more likely that people would travel a lot than other parts of the world.)
posted by lollusc at 4:58 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]


« Older “See if I’m wrong.”   |   And so it went. Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments