Tracking the spread of early hunter-gatherers through language

Scientists have further evidence that an ancient family of languages spread across most of the Australian continent over the last 6000 years, rapidly replacing pre-existing languages.

But the puzzle remains as to why.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Auckland and Yale University in the United States have adapted computer models, initially developed to trace virus outbreaks, and used them to trace the origins of the world’s largest hunter-gatherer language family – the Pama-Nyungan languages of Australia.

The study of language and how it evolved provides vital information about the past, and how processes of cultural evolution, human migration and expansion prior to the agricultural revolution shaped early human settlement.

Linguists have established that many of the world’s roughly 7000 languages can be grouped into large families of related languages. For example, the Romance languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian) are descended from Latin and are themselves related to several hundred languages, including English, German, Greek, and Hindi, as part of the Indo-European language family.

When Europeans colonised Australia 250 years ago, it was home to around half a million to two million people organised into about 700 different groups who spoke some 400 languages.

The continent therefore provides a useful model of how language diversified and spread from the earliest times that shaped humankind. Language experts have long wondered how one language family—Pama-Nyungan—came to dominate most of Australia. Pama-Nyungan contains more than 75% of Australia’s roughly 400 indigenous languages and is found across about 90% of the continent.

Professor Atkinson, from the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology, says the puzzle is made all the more mystifying because Pama-Nyungan speakers, like all Indigenous Australians, were traditionally hunter-gatherers, and remained so until European contact. This means that standard explanations for what drives the expansion of language – adopting new agricultural technology for example – cannot apply in the Australian case.

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