Holocene Revolutions

Domestication and Intensification in Australia and New Guinea

In both hemi-continents of Sahul, New Guinea and Australia, there are striking discrepancies in the distribution of linguistic diversity and disparity.

These point to apparently explosive processes of cultural expansion in relatively recent times, beginning probably in the early to mid-Holocene, and extending through to the present. On both sides, the processes and causes remain enigmatic but they hold the key to understanding the most important changes in the mid-distant past. On the New Guinea side, the vast Trans New Guinea family – with around 400 languages, the fourth or fifth biggest language family on earth, reckoned by numbers of languages – commands over half of the languages, with the other 400 are splintered across more than seventy small families and isolates. Expansions of Trans New Guinea languages have often been linked to the development of root-based agricultural techniques some 7,000 years ago, but the evidence is at best circumstantial – there are minimal reconstructable words for agricultural terminology in New Guinea, in contrast to well-known agricultural expansions like Uto-Aztecan or Austro-Asiatic. Alternative explanations, invoking primarily social causalities, have yet to be properly explored, nor have contemporary studies examined the expansion of TNG languages as it unfolds. Can we combine archaeological, genetic and linguistic analyses to uncover the history of cultural diversification in New Guinea? Currently, each of these sources of evidence is fragmentary or poorly resolved, but additional research and new modes of analysis should bring light to these long-standing questions.

Research area lead: Kim Sterelny

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