The eternal Aboriginal

By Razib Khan | May 22, 2013 2:29 pm

Credit: Kwamikagami

National Geographic has an interesting article up, unoriginally titled Australia’s Aboriginals. There are lots of great data in there, though not much novel for anyone who has tread this territory before. For example, Aboriginals tend to have much lower morbidity and mortality when they are living their “traditional” lifestyle. This isn’t a particular novel or surprising outcome. Rather, it seems like a supercharged version of the same problem which occurs when immigrants move from developing to developed societies, and shift toward massive portions and processed food. This modern regime is even impacting native born segments of America’s population in a negative manner. Interesting and true.

But what concerns me is the background assumption that Aboriginals are timeless and static, arriving ~50,000 years ago from Sundaland, and remaining in a stasis. My issue isn’t normative. And I’m fascinated by the inferences some archaeologists have made about the continuity of specific motifs in Aboriginal art. Additionally, from what I understand the material culture of Aboriginals is especially changeless in relation to other populations in the world. But one thing we know about H. sapiens is that cultural forms of expression are quite protean, especially symbolic aspects which might not preserve too well. Would the Aboriginals of Australia be immune from this? I doubt it.

In any case we know of likely changes in Aboriginal culture of relatively recent vintage. The map above shows the distribution of Australian Aboriginal language families, and you can see that one group, Pama-Nyungan is rather extensive. Just eyeballing this distribution and you can infer that it was probably the result of a recent expansion, and sure enough, linguists believe that it converges back to a common ancestor 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. A major language shift by necessity entails a major cultural shift, so one conclusion you can draw from this is that there has been a massive dynamic of ethnic sorting, extinction, and assimilation across much of Australia over the past 10,000 years. The dingo, that iconic quasi-companion of Aboriginals, is also a relatively new arrival (>10,000 years B.P.). Even the boomerang may be a Holocene aspect of Australian culture! I am not even commenting on the more recent genetic data, which draw some rather startling conclusions. The reality is that I won’t be totally comfortable accepting these conclusions if they are too strange unless I can play with the data myself, and for various political reasons there is a low probability of that. But the non-genetic data for change is compelling enough for me.

Why does any of this matter? Because implicitly and explicitly we often use Aboriginals as models of ur-humans, “hunter-gatherer” man. Unlike other non-agricultural populations the Aboriginals had the whole continent to themselves. I don’t think that drawing inferences from Aboriginals is illegitimate, but it is important to question the presupposition that they’re somehow trapped in cultural amber, perfect artifacts which are a window into the world of 50,000 B.C. I suspect they aren’t, so our conclusions have to appropriately modulated.

MORE ABOUT: Anthropology

Comments (8)

  1. Al West

    I looked into the issue of Pama-Nyungan expansion recently. The model Evans and McConvell espoused in 1998 doesn’t fit the archaeological evidence at present, but an ameliorated version does. That article is, incidentally, one of the most interesting in Archaeology and Language II.

    They were working on the basis that there was a major expansion and intensification in Australian economies in the mid-Holocene, but actually the intensification appears to have begun in the late-Pleistocene, especially the use of cycads. Pama-Nyungan does correlate with the spread of backed unifacial blades, however, and therefore probably spread with them. Peter Hiscock’s model for the spread of backed unifacials is that they were exceptionally efficient when compared with other tools, including existing bifacial technologies, and they could be knapped in greater quantities from less rock. They were also easier to resharpen and to haft (many of the artifacts bear resin and markings from having been hafted, in addition to signs of resharpening. They probably spread due to the climate becoming drier and less predictable (possibly the driest Australia has ever been), making efficient, versatile tools better than elaborate, heavier ones. I believe that this also led to a migration of people, and therefore also the proto-Pama-Nyungan language, across Australia in the mid-Holocene.

  2. “But one thing we know about H. sapiens is that cultural forms of expression are quite protean, especially symbolic aspects which might not preserve too well.”


  3. Andrew Lancaster

    I do not know if there has been extensive revision of the idea, but I know that at least some linguists were of the opinion that Pama-Nyungan does not work well as a normal family tree, but may in fact be a language which is constantly being pulled back together within one culture zone as a kind of Sprachbund. (So it is a bit like the argument that bacteria do not fit a family tree, but rather lend from each other “sideways”.) Of course if there is one culture zone this still means something, but is maybe more difficult to relate to any method of estimating ages? (Such methods are controversial in linguistics anyway because mutations in languages are not random and are known to happen in an amazing range of “speeds”.)

    • Al West

      You’re thinking the work of R. M. W. Dixon, a well-respected researcher on Australian languages who, among other things, proposed the concept of a proto-Australian language and developed a basic phonology for it, which some linguists (including William Foley) have found useful for comparative research in New Guinea. Unfortunately, he also had some unorthodox views. You might even call them fringe opinions. His claims about Pama-Nyungan don’t seem to carry any weight – it’s actually a well-established family according to contemporary linguists. Dixon’s views came from an opposition to the idea of protolanguages and genetic relationships between languages instead of any problems within the Pama-Nyungan family itself.

  4. Sandgroper

    The truth is that turtles taste awful. They taste somewhat less awful when there is nothing else to eat.

    When you are hunting kangaroos, a dog is a very big asset. The big kangaroos lie down under bushes to sleep during the heat of the day, making themselves almost impossible to see, and get up to move around and feed at dusk. But then, they are very hard to see in the distance, because a kangaroo is all hind legs and tail, the head and forequarters are small and slender, even on a big one, and also they drop down onto their front legs to feed. An adult dingo accustomed to being around humans is easily smart enough to lead a human hunter towards where a mob of kangaroos is feeding, close enough so that you can see them in the half-light (maybe checking your face every so often to see if you are looking at where the kangaroos are – we know that dogs can read human faces in this way), but not so close that they can hear or smell you. Then it will literally ‘point’ – it will stand still, staring towards where the kangaroos are, and occasionally looking at your face to make sure you have got the message. Then it’s your job to take the lead and kill a kangaroo, and the unwritten contract says that the dog gets the bits of the kangaroo that the humans don’t want.

    You don’t need to be on up-close cuddly terms with a dog for it to follow this pattern of behaviour. In fact it probably works better if you are not. I have successfully hunted kangaroos this way partnered by a dog that showed no outwards signs of friendliness to me at all, admittedly with a single shot 0.22 rifle rather than with a hardwood spear and a woomera. But then I’m not as good at getting within spearing distance of kangaroos as Aboriginal hunters are. The dog I hunted with would know the hunt was on as soon as I picked up my rifle and started walking, and would immediately run ahead of me and take the lead.

    Just the introduction of the dingo had to be a big culture-changer as an aide to Aboriginal hunters, never mind megafaunal extinctions, multiple climate changes and major vegetation changes over a space of 48,000 years, and especially when the climate turned drier and game became more scarce and harder to find. Giving someone a good hunting dog as a gift was a big deal.

  5. Victor

    You make some excellent points, Razib.

    From my book, “Sounding the Depths: Tradition and the Voices of History”:

    “But there is a problem. If Sahul were populated by Out of Africa migrants
    when both New Guinea and Australia were joined into a single landmass,
    and both regions had remained relatively isolated from then to now, as
    appears to be the case, we would expect the populations now living in
    both places to be quite similar, both morphologically and culturally.
    And we would assume they’d be closely related genetically as well. This,
    however, is not the case.”

    Based on evidence drawn from both the cultural and genetic realms, I came up with a (frankly speculative) reconstruction of Australian/Melanesian history that might interest you. Here’s the link to Chapter Fourteen, “Mysteries of Sahul”:


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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