Solving the mystery of the origins of early Australian language

13 April 2018

Quentin Atkinson and Remco Bouckaert with Claire Bowern, their colleague from Yale University, have been working on unravelling the enigma of the spread of Pama-Nyungan language family across the Austalian landscape. This early hunter-gatherer language family dominated 75% of Australia's roughly 400 indigenous languages and is found across about 90% of the continent. 

Different theories of when the Pama-Nyungan speakers spread across the continent have been proposed, ranging from over 50,000 years ago to 10,000 - 13,000 years ago to 7,000 - 10,000 years ago to the 'rapid replacement theory' which argues for a more recent expansion into an already-occupied territory just 4,000 - 6,000 years ago. 

By adapting computer models developed to trace virus outbreaks, they were able to use 'cognates' or shared words that have a common ancestor language to build a family tree of 306 Pama-Nyungan languages. 

The team found clear support for a Pama-Nyungan origin aournd 5,700 years ago in an area south of the Gulf of Carpentaria, in striking agreement with the rapid replacement hypothesis. These findings inform our understanding of the processes of cultural evolution, human migration and expansion prior to the agricultural revolution. 

Associated information

Dr Remco Bouckaert, Department of Computer Science
Dr Remco Bouckaert
Professor Quentin Atkinson, School of Psychology
Professor Quentin Atkinson