The Problems of Australia's Deep Past - Part Two
Dravidians, The Pama-Nyungan Expansion, Dingos and Other Mysteries
You can read Part One of this topic here, where I cover the fossil record of Australia and Java and look at the arguments for the existence of Aboriginal Pygmies.
In my last article I left the exploration of Australia’s prehistory unresolved - which it still largely remains today - but in only covering the fossil record and the discussion of Aboriginal Pygmies/Negritos we have missed swathes of evidence for post-Pleistocene migration into Australia. As it stands the consensus is that one and only one migration has ever taken place into Australia before the colonial period. This is reinforced in museums, lectures, textbooks and social commentary in Australia and around the world. At least one generation has been raised on this. The competing or even complicating evidence remains largely in the realms of lone academics, marginal journals and fields and online discussion groups.
This second article will dive into later evidence for external contact with Australia, after the rising sea levels cut the continent off from the world. We will cover languages, genetics, animal and plant movements, flint tools and oral history. Hopefully I will be able to show how an old Victorian idea about migration to Australia from India has been resurrected and reinvigorated; how Aboriginal languages hold some secrets about the past and how their oral history contains intriguing tales of exotic ‘fox-coloured’ sailors from distant lands long ago. I’ll try to piece all these lines of evidence together and see what picture is painted at the end.
The Dravidian Question
One of the more confusing and almost esoteric proposals of the Victorian era was the Dravidian-Aboriginal connection and the possibility that a wave of migrants from India arrived in Australia at some point in the distant past. To quote John Mathew in his 1899 work Eaglehawk and Crow: a Study of the Australian Aborigines, including an Inquiry into their Origin and a Survey of Australian Languages:
“Then followed one invasion, if not two, by hostile people. Of these the Dravidian was the first to arrive, the Malay coming later… Coming as a later offshoot from the first home of humanity, this invading band was of higher intelligence and better equipped for conflict than the indigenes of Australia. Physically, they were more lithe and wiry, and of taller stature. They were lighter in colour, though a dark race; less hirsute; and the hair of their head was perfectly straight”
To the modern ear this sounds profoundly strange, how did people come to believe that a group of south Indians invaded Australia? What was their proof? To answer this we return to the fossil record and to Huxley.
The term Dravidian is one of those ‘kitchen sink’ descriptors which seems to fulfil whatever role is asked of it. Generally it refers to the people of South India, and depending on how you interpret the history, could be narrowed down to: remnants of the Pleistocene Southern Dispersal populations; Pleistocene and Holocene migrant mixtures; incoming Neolithic Zagros farmers; the founders of the Mehrgarh; the founders of the Indus Valley civilisation or a mixture of all of these, sometimes called Ancestral South Indians (ASIs). This confusion was plainly evident in the 19th century, as one reviewer of Mathew’s work noted:
“There is also some ambiguity in the use of the term "Dravidian," as, from the researches of Thurston, it would appear that there is a dark, broad nosed, curly-haired primitive race in Southern India which may for the present be termed the pre-Dravidian race. The typical Dravidians (Telugus, Kanarese, &c.) are regarded by some as a later immigrant people. In his " Man : Past and Present," Keane states that "all attempts to affiliate this group [the Australian languages] to the Dravidian of Southern India, or to any other, have signally failed.””
Huxley was the first to make the connection between the ‘Dravidians’ and the Aboriginal Australians. During his time aboard HMS Rattlesnake’s voyage to Australia (1846-50) he observed the phenotypic and linguistic relationship between the southern Indians and the Aboriginal peoples. In publications dating across 1865 - 1870 Huxley developed his theory that the Dravidian and Australian peoples represented a single pure racial type, along with the ancient Egyptians. This did little to solve the problem of Australian origins however, as anatomists and natural scientists argued for years over whether Aboriginal people were a single race, a mixed race of Tasmanian and Dravidian stock or a triple combination of ‘Oceanic Negro’, Dravidian and Tasmanian. In 1909 two skulls were excavated at Adichanallur, Tamil Nadu. A full analysis of their features and condition was published in 1930 by the Madras Government Museum, comparing them with Aboriginal craniometric features. At least one skull was considered to be definitely of Australoid origin, strengthening the argument that some Aboriginal peoples descended in part from a recent wave of southern Indian incomers.
This theme was picked up and expanded over the decades, reaching its full flowering in Joseph Birdsell’s 1993 work Microevolutionary patterns in Aboriginal Australia. Here he makes the argument that a south Indian derived phenotype is visible within the Aboriginal population. But as with most of Birdsell’s work, it was ultimately dismissed and by the turn of the millennium, the ‘Dravidian Question’ had been largely forgotten.
The Genetics Steps In
In a running theme throughout much of the genetic revolution, the older theories which had largely been dismissed came back to the fore. In 2002 a paper was published entitled: Gene Flow from the Indian Subcontinent to Australia: Evidence from the Y Chromosome. The researchers, working from Huxley and Birdsell, set out to test the connection between the south Indians and the Aboriginals. Working on common elements from the Y-chromosome, they concluded that there was an overlap suggestive of Indian introgression between 3-5k years ago. This meant that not only were south Indians and Aborginal people connected via the Pleistocene migration path, but that an incoming group of south Indians arrived in Australia relatively recently.
Since then a number of contradictory studies have been conducted:
A particularly curious study was performed in India in 2011 - an isolated Dravidian speaking tribe, the Soliga, were found to not only be very distinct from their surrounding neighbours, but also to share close genetic affinities with at least two Aboriginal peoples:
“The Soliga tribe was found to be remarkably different from other Indian populations including other southern Dravidian-speaking tribes. In contrast, the Soliga people exhibited genetic affinity to two Australian aboriginal populations. This genetic similarity could be attributed to the ‘Out of Africa’ migratory wave(s) along the southern coast of India that eventually reached Australia. Alternatively, the observed genetic affinity may be explained by more recent migrations from the Indian subcontinent into Australia.”
Overall the case being built by the genetic studies partially reinforces the earlier views on Dravidian migrations, but also narrows down considerably the time frame in question. The studies which positively identify a connection between south India and Australia converge on the same time period: The Mid Holocene. So what else happened during the Holocene which could reinforce the Dravidian connection?
Of Dingos and Stones
A topic of intense curiosity to archaeologists is the question of how and when the dingo arrived in Australia. Dingos are a very unusual canid with some unprecedented historical features:
Dingos are essentially ‘feralised’ dogs. Having split from a lineage of domestic dog known as the ‘New Guinea singing dog’, they entered Australia and reverted back towards a feral canid.
This feralisation process shows up in their inability to process starch (alpha-amylase locus) and their ability to hunt animals such as kangaroos in packs, much like wolves.
Uniquely it seems, the Aboriginal Australians made no attempt to selectively breed the dingo. Their morphology has remained consistent for at least 3,500 years.
There isn’t space in this article to dive into the arguments around dingo genetics, what we are concerned with is the question of when they arrived and who brought them. The earliest dingo fossil places them in Australia 3,450 years ago, but several genetic analyses show they diverged from the singing dog around 8,300 years ago. We currently have several models now based on these studies:
8,300 years the dingo split from singing dog and crossed the land bridge between New Guinea and Australia independently
3,450 years ago the dingo was brought to Australia by humans using boats
At least one paper indicates there are two deeply split dingo populations - northwestern and southeastern
A combination of independent crossings and human movement
Another unexplained mid Holocene phenomenon is the sudden appearance of a new type of stone tool. The so-called ‘backed artefacts’ or ‘backed blades/tools’ first appear around 8,500 years and then proliferate rapidly around 3,500 years ago. As above with the dingo, these two dates are perfectly aligned.
Together these two lines of evidence support two major periods of change in Australia, or at least the beginning of a change and the following intensification. Let’s turn now to one of Australia’s greatest enigmas - the distribution of its languages.
The Pama-Nyungan Expansion
As with so many other things, there is a unique and striking difference within the structure of Australia’s language families. The continent is divided between two groups of languages - the Pama-Nyungan and the Non-Pama-Nyungan. The Pama-Nyungan languages occupy the vast majority of Australia, 306 of 400 languages, with the remaining languages squeezed into a small space in the north. This is a very unusual pattern of differentiation, typically only seen during aggressive expansions like the Indo-European and the Bantu. So what is happening here?
There are a number of confusions surrounding this language distribution. Typically languages differentiate away from one another at a generally predictable rate. This would indicate that the Pama-Nyungan family, which occupies the overwhelming majority of the continent, split fairly late in Australian prehistory and hasn’t had the time to internally divide. On top of this there is absolutely no consensus amongst the few linguists who study this topic as to how Pama-Nyungan evolved - whether it is even a meaningful language category, from what proto-language or family it originated or how the remaining non-Pama-Nyungan languages should be classified.
Given that prehistoric Australians, however many the waves of arrival, have been on the continent for at least 50k years, the youthfulness of the Pama-Nyungan family indicates that it differentiated and then expanded rapidly around 5-6,000 years ago. Curiously, work by Schmidt (1919) identified two major language groups - a southeastern and northwestern. This division in the Pama-Nyungan family was confirmed using computational phylogenetics, but also matches deep divides within the population genetic structures of modern Aboriginal Australians, indicating that the expansion of the Pama-Nyungan languages, along with the backed-blade stone tools, was carried out by people migrating, rather than linguistic diffusion.
Studies of the Pama-Nyungan language family have shown it to contain a number of linguistic innovations, as well as loan words from the non-Pama-Nyungan languages. This is to be expected, but rather than a blurred gradient between the non-Pama-Nyungan and Pama-Nyungan, we instead see a sharp division, indicative of rapid expansion and cultural separation. To quote Patrick McConvell:
“There are loanwords in both directions but these can be detected, along with the direction of borrowing in the vast majority of cases. This is the case all along the boundary as far as we know: despite diffusion of items and to a limited extent structures across the boundary there is a sharp divide and no sense of the smooth cline one would expect if the situation were really the result of tens of millennia of diffusion and convergence.”
At present there is no agreement as to how and why the expansion occurred, other than dismissing the outdated idea of external migrations - we are left with few ideas. There was no animal domestication (quite the opposite), no horticulture, no agriculture, no pastoralism. In the absence of external interventions the standard narrative looks to the changing conditions of the climate during the mid Holocene, which prompted a greater reliance on plant foods, as elsewhere on earth. But is this really enough to explain the rapid spread of one language family?
The issue of whether any other group of people has migrated to Australia in the last 50k years has proved both highly elusive but persistent. Clues, hints, suggestions, but never anything truly definitive. Alternative explanations exist for almost every piece of evidence, nevertheless it is worth examining some of these examples.
C.E.M & F.M Pearce in their book Oceanic Migration: Paths, Sequence, Timing and Range of Prehistoric Migration in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, outline some speculative findings which would indicate that people from the Spice Islands were travelling down the west coast of Australia. The first is the boab tree. The boab is a fascinating tree because it belongs to a larger group of trees, almost all of whom exist only in Madagascar. The question of how the boab reached Australia is yet another mystery - three possibilities exist:
Seeds from Madagascar managed to make their way across the Indian Ocean and found a new sub-species in Australia. Considered extremely unlikely due to salt water damage and the currents being against the possibility.
Seeds made their way with the earliest humans along the Southern Dispersal route.
Seeds travelled back and forth with sailors across the Indian Ocean - but this would require a rapid species divergence in just a few thousand years.
In 1930 and again in 1993, members of the Australian public found strange eggshells. When examined these were revealed to belong to Aepyornis maximus, a now extinct Madagascan elephant bird. At least one of these was radiocarbon dated to around 2000 BP, suggestive of Austronesian sailors moving the birds across the Indian Ocean. How they ended up in Australia is then a secondary question, but we will touch on the Austronesians shortly.
Finally they list a curious idea - the mythological motif of the Moon/Lake story - which seems certain to have originated in the Maluku Spice Islands and was distributed by the Taiwanese/Filipino Lapita Culture (the ancestor to the Polynesians). The myth seems to have travelled to Lapita colonies or destinations - Japan, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii and New Zealand, and interestingly, to Western Australia. This would make sense if regular seafaring contact were made between Lapita descendants and Aboriginal Australians.
A number of objects have been recovered in the past century which suggest trade and connectivity with southeast Asia. These include greenstone polished chisels, unusual stone tools and a jade statue of Chinese origin, excavated in 1879 near Darwin.
It is well known that the Makassar people of Sulawesi made repeated contact with northern Australians during the 18th century, in particular to collect the trepang or sea cucumber, for sale in Chinese markets. However, in Arnhem Land the Yolgnu Aboriginal peoples have a much deeper memory of earlier contacts with outsiders. Mentioned in their mythological epic of the Djang'kawu, the Yolgnu have preserved an encounter with a group of people they call the Baijini. It is worth trying to unpack this myth in some detail, since the connections with the wider Indian world are on full display here.
Who are the Baijini?
The Baijini appear in the story of the Djang'kawu elders as people who already occupy the land when the elder ancestors arrive on the shore. Alternatively in other descriptions they arrive on a shipwreck, but in either story they are people who have come from another land. They cultivated rice, made pottery and their women wore colourful sarongs, they also built houses of stone and possessed sailing technologies far above the Aborigine’s capacities.
The question of who the Baijini are has puzzled anthropologists and historians for generations. Proposals have included Chinese, Bajau Sea Gypsies, Makassans and pre-Makassans, Indonesians, Malays and Indians, to name but a few. Other ideas include the journeying of some Aboriginal people to Sulawesi with the Makassans - thus explaining the odd order of events in one version of the story - or just simply that the Baijini are fictional people of mythology and nothing more. The trope of a stranger-king or external authority arriving by the sea is common in Oceania, and some researchers have suggested the Baijini fit into this tradition.
What we don’t know about the Baijini is probably more relevant to us. The stories of the Makassan trepang hunters are historic in nature to the Yolgnu, but the Baijini are something else entirely - mythic, powerful, secretive, beings that hold knowledge fundamental to the essence of the Yolgnu themselves. As Ian S. McIntosh in his book, Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition, writes:
“The concealment of the stories of the Bayini beyond fleeting references to them building boats, making pottery, growing rice, or weaving on their looms was quite thorough. But then there are those even more obscure references to Bayini ‘flying fox’ people creating sacred waterholes, or the story of the birth of the first light-skinned baby—obviously the result of a liaison between a Yolngu woman and an Indonesian man. These stories speak to an entirely different level of significance… there is a strong suggestion that there existed in Yolngu discourse some overarching belief associated with the power and prestige of the Other—a power that rightfully belonged to the Yolngu. Specifically, the notion of a ‘Dreaming Macassan’ appears to provide the nucleus for Yolngu thoughts on the origin and purpose of non Aborigines… In the stories that have been shared, the Bayini are seafarers who, at the dawn of time, make their way from points south of Numbulwar in the Gulf of Carpentaria, around Dholtji and Cape Wilberforce, and into Arnhem Bay and Gurrumurru, where their journey ends as mysteriously as it began.”
This map shows the connectivity of the maritime world in southeast Asia and Oceania. The Austronesians linking together the Indian and Pacific Oceans over several millennia, and yet somehow ignoring Australia, which is extraordinarily close to their known sailing paths. The earliest Sanskrit inscriptions in Indonesia date to the second half of the fourth century AD at Kutai, East Kalimantan, some twenty miles from the Makassar Straits. To quote Darshi Arichige, in his recent discussion on the possibility of gene flow from India to Australia:
“As now we know that Dravidians were in the vicinity of Makassar, it would have been very easy for them to visit Arnhem Land or Kimberley region with the help of the northwest monsoonal winds. Thus, if Haviks and Mukris, who are usual inhabitants of the western side of Indian subcontinent could genetically contribute to the Australian Aboriginal genome, as the researchers suggested, the Dravidians who might have started from Coromandel Coast, also stood a similar chance of such a contribution in rather recent historical times. Thus, given the archaeological evidence from the region and the genetic connection discussed above, the probability of a Dravidian contact around the 4th Century AD is very high.”
So we have here tales of foreign sailors, who likely traversed the northern coast of Australia in the deep past, who were golden brown skinned and who apparently married into the Aboriginal people of Arnhem, who pre-date the Makassans and who had the technology to arrive and then leave with their families. A very likely date could be set as late as the fourth century AD, while earlier speculations could be hinted at by looking at how Austronesian boats and skills were acquired along the Indian coastline (a topic for another time). Either way, there is a high probability that the tales of the Baijini and the genetic indicators of Dravidian contact in Australia could refer to the same true event.
Pieces of the Jigsaw
Summing everything up here we can point to a few evidence clusters:
Approx 8,500 years ago both the dingo and the first evidence for backed blade stone tools appear in Australia
Around 5,000 years ago the Pama-Nyungan language family begins to rapidly differentiate
3,500 years ago a new dingo group appears, the backed blade tools and the Pama-Nyungan languages spread rapidly - the maps of both the tools and the language distribution overlap extremely well
Both the dingo population and the Pama-Nyungan languages show a deep and matching division - northwestern & southeastern
Several genetics papers point to an introgression of south Indian genes somewhere between 3-5,000 years ago
The presence of boab trees and elephant bird eggs (dated to 2000 years ago), both originally from Madagascar
Lapita mythological motifs and Aboriginal stories of (likely) Indonesian or Indian seafarers present within oral histories
None of these are suggestive of one particular episode of migration, but together they point to two or three intriguing possibilities. Firstly that one or more episodes of contact took place between northern Aboriginal Australians and southern Indian sailors anywhere between 3-5,000 years ago. This contact in some way prompted an internal split or division, resulting in one language family coming to dominate most of the continent. Secondly that southeast Asian/Indian contact may have been periodically sustained, with meetings perhaps around 400 AD and again around 1750 AD. Finally, some minor level of integration of Australia by the Austronesians into their maritime world, suggested by Madagascan flora and fauna and mythological motifs.
The major weakness with suggesting that both the flint tools and the language spread were somehow caused by contact with another group is that we have no mechanism or hypothesis for what this means. Did this incoming group bring a new tool style? Teach the coastal Aboriginal people a new style? Did they invade and provoke some major group conflict? We don’t know.
A major missing piece from this jigsaw is the absence and few tantalising hints of Austronesian presence on the continent. This will be a topic for the third and final instalment of this series of Australian prehistory, along with some proposed scenarios based on the evidence so far.
Bibliography (not already cited or linked)
I read nearly fifty articles and chapters for this piece, not all of them helpful. These are some of the more interesting papers and books.
Pattern and context in the Holocene proliferation of backed artifacts in Australia. Hiscock, P., 2002.
Lexical and Structural Etymology. Robert Mailhammer (Ed.)
The Language of Hunter-Gatherers. Edited by Tom Güldemann, Patrick McConvell and Richard A. Rhodes
The Prehistory and Internal Relationships of Australian Languages. Patrick McConvell and Claire Bowern. 2011
Independent Histories of Human Y Chromosomes from Melanesia and Australia. Kayser et al. 2001.
Aboriginal mitogenomes reveal 50,000 years of regionalism in Australia. Tobler, R., Rohrlach, A., Soubrier, J. et al. (2017).
The ‘global’versus the ‘local’: cognitive processes of kin determination in Aboriginal Australia. Dousset, L., 2008.
‘Complexity’and the Australian continental narrative: themes in the archaeology of Holocene Australia. Ulm, S., 2013.