The Problems of Australia's Deep Past - Part Three
Where are the Austronesians?
If you’ve followed this series all the way, you’ll know that I’ve covered two main periods of Australian prehistory with regards to migration and influences from the outside. Firstly the fossil record and the controversial question of Aboriginal Pygmies, and secondly the disparate bits of evidence during the Holocene for external contact, including dingoes, linguistics, genetics, flora, fauna and oral history. In this final piece I want to take aim at something of an absence in Australian history - the apparent bypassing of the continent during the Austronesian Expansion - as well as sum up the evidence so far and think about plausible models for the Australian past.
The Lapita Expansion
Without spending a whole article on the Austronesian Expansion, it is worth briefly reviewing the origins and spread of the Neolithic pottery using culture which appears across Oceania but somehow misses Australia. The generally accepted model for the appearance of the Austronesian peoples is known as ‘Out of Taiwan’ - meaning that the founding peoples who spoke Proto-Austronesian and who brought a whole suite of technology, ceramics, crops and domesticated animals. They can be traced back to Taiwan, somewhere around 5-6000 years ago. Genetic testing of fossilised remains in Vanuatu and Tonga confirm that the first inhabitants are of Taiwanese descent. In places like the Bismarck Archipelago a new archaeological horizon appears instantaneously around 3,500 years ago - red slipware with unique stamps and evidence for novel horticulture:
“Our analyses of phytoliths and starch in sediments and on pottery has found evidence for burning, food preparation and cooking in conjunction with a suite of wild and domesticated plants indicative of horticulture. Starch and phytoliths from seeded Australimusa (syn: Callimusa) bananas as well as domesticated Eumusa (syn: Musa) bananas were recovered, as well as Colocasia esculenta (taro) starch, and Metroxylon sp. (sago palm) phytoliths”
The Lapita peoples seemed to move from the Philippines to the Bismarck Archipelago, then outwards to Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga. On the New Guinea mainland, Lapita ceramics have been dated to around 2,900 - 2,500 years ago, along with stone adzes, obsidian tools and shell armbands. This westward movement along the coast across the south of the island seems to stop at Australia.
The Lapita peoples carried what appears to be an entire package of cultural and domesticate technology, including stilted houses, sophisticated outrigger sailing boats, taro, sago, bananas, rice, pigs, dogs, chickens and new types of stone tools. Their intermixing with local Papuan populations produced the Polynesian peoples and they passed on Austronesian languages across the region.
Despite this rapid and extensive migration there is no evidence for Lapita pottery or activity on the Australian mainland, the closest locations are islands off the shore:
Lapita on the Edge
“On an anecdotal level, Australian archaeologists regularly complain amongst themselves about the dismissive or cursory way Australian archaeology is dealt with in global surveys of human prehistory. Yet for the most part, Australianists largely ignore the outside world, positing that the ancestors of today’s Aboriginal Australians came, saw and conquered about 65 000 years ago, and then, with the exception perhaps some 3000–5000 years ago of adopting the dingo, a canine that as a non-marsupial had to come from elsewhere, remained cut off from the outside world until seasonally visiting Macassan sea-slug gatherers from Indonesia began exploiting the northern coastline just before Europeans appeared on the scene. Extraordinarily, most general surveys of Australian prehistory do not even acknowledge more than in passing (if at all) that the continent was joined to New Guinea by dry land from the time of initial colonisation until the early Holocene”
This unusually frank statement comes from a book chapter entitled Lapita: The Australian connection, by Ian Lilley in Debating Lapita. His point sums up my frustrations with Australian archaeology and why I chose to write three articles on the subject - why do we allow this one continent and people the special position of total isolation prior to European colonisation? The two main areas of contention to focus on here are the Torres Straits and a tiny speck of land called Lizard Island.
Australia has over 8000 islands, a legacy of the Holocene sea level rise which separated the continent from New Guinea, the majority of which have not been comprehensively excavated. The Torres Strait islands are a natural place to look for connections between the Aboriginal and Austronesian worlds, indeed many of the modern inhabitants of the islands are Austronesian speaking and descendants of the maritime Neolithic culture which spread throughout the Pacific. Lizard Island on the other hand seems an unremarkable place, but well positioned to receive visitors from the rest of the Lapita world.
Lizard Island belongs to the chain of islands in the Great Barrier Reef and seems to have been intermittently occupied from the Australian mainland as far back as 4000 years ago. One key marine resource, which we will return to, were turtles. These seem to have been a major draw factor from Australia, and between 5-3000 years ago a flurry of activity is documented across the reef, which stabilises as the sea level settled. Some island chains were permanently occupied (Whitsunday and Keppel Islands) and others periodically visited (Shoalwater Bay Group). Many of these were then abandoned for around 2000 years, in particular the Cumberland Group, Keppel Islands, and Northumberland Group. Lizard Island seems to be highly unusual in possessing pottery and potentially stone arrangements which link both Aboriginal and Austronesian cultures.
The pottery from Lizard Island has yet to be properly dated, but analysis of the temper shows it was manufactured on the island, rather than brought there as some speculated. Examinations of the stone structures show cultural expressions which match both Torres Strait and wider Lapita material culture, but also Aboriginal styles of stonework:
“available ethnographic analyses and archaeological evidence supports the view that visitors from Torres Strait and the southwest Pacific visited the Lizard Island Group. To what extent and on what terms these visitors interacted with local Dingaal people and their ancestors remains to be determined.”
This accords with well documented connections between the Torres Islanders from Warraber and Poruma Islands who would sail to Lizard Island to source ‘clubstone’ and mythology from Rossel, which mentions pigs, taro and a special canoe brought by ‘light-skinned’ ancestral peoples. Extensive simulations of the wind patterns between the Solomon Islands and Lizard Islands conclude that travel between them was almost certain:
“In this paper we have investigated the question of seafaring between Lizard Island and the Melanesian Islands of the Solomon Sea. More accurate climate data, better information on canoe performance and a refined rationale of simulation demonstrate that the potential for navigation in the Solomon Sea is extensive, and that sailing to Lizard Island not only is possible, but has most likely occurred. In addition, seasonal variations of wind conditions show that journeys to Lizard Island were followed by at least several months of visit or even settlement on the island before having the opportunity to return north or north-eastwards”
What some researchers have dubbed ‘The Solomon Sea Interaction Sphere’ seemed to predict this connection between the Lapita world and the edges of Australia, in particular the Torres Strait. As Lilley notes:
“Combined with factors such as the presence of obsidian from Fergusson Island in the Massim in both the Reef Islands’ Lapita site SE–RF–2 and at Teouma in Vanuatu to the south-east of the main Solomons and in the Post-Lapita Oposisi site on Yule Island on the edge the Papuan Gulf far to the west, the Woodlark finding led Sheppard and colleagues to hypothesise the existence of an east–west interaction sphere that also facilitated the appearance of Late Lapita on the Papuan coast and the presence of Late Lapita ceramics in Torres Strait.”
So what we are looking at here is the presence of Austronesian voyagers and traders moving around a well connected maritime world which included the fringes of Aboriginal Australia, most likely prompted by hunters following the hawksbill turtles which nest in the Solomon Islands but travel to forage in Australian waters. In at least two locations, these Lapita peoples left behind ceramics and traces of cultural intermixing with Aboriginal peoples. But, what is remarkable is the absence of Austronesian presence on the mainland itself - despite the huge networks of connections between tiny Pacific islands and larger land masses like New Guinea, the Neolithic juggernaut that was the Austronesian Expansion stopped right at the beaches of the Australian continent.
A Closer Look At Torres
The Torres Strait is one of the richest areas to look at when trying to understand the deep history and division between the Aboriginal peoples and the Papuans. Despite Australia being connected to a ‘Greater Australia’ - the Sahul landmass - the genetic differentiation of the Papuans and the Aboriginals is vast. To quote from one of the most comprehensive genetics papers on Aboriginal prehistory:
“We find a relatively old divergence between the ancestors of Pama–Nyungan speakers and Highland Papuans, only ~10% younger than the European–East Asian split time. With the assumed rescaling parameters this corresponds to ∼37 kya, implying that the divergence between sampled Papuans and Aboriginal Australians is older than the disappearance of the land bridge between New Guinea and Australia ∼7–14.5 kya, and thus suggests ancient genetic structure in Sahul”
Why this might be is again something of a mystery. The authors speculate that the environment of the Sahul land bridge helped create a spatial and genetic separation between the populations. The modern day Gulf of Carpentaria did once contain a palaeo-lake, when the water levels were at their lowest during the Last Glacial Maximum. This lake and the surrounding rivers and marshlands may have been partially responsible for the early difference between the ancestral Australians and Papuans.
The early archaeology of the Torres region is complex but hugely interesting regarding how Australian, Papuan and Austronesian peoples interacted. The Torres Islands are made up of four main groups - the Western, Top-Western, Central and Eastern. Ethnographically the island populations are a mixture of cultural and linguistic influences. The hugely successful anthropological survey of the islands - the 1898 'Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits', run by Alfred Cort Haddon - revealed that the Eastern group spoke a Papuan language, Meriam, whilst the remaining islanders speak an Australian-Austronesian language known variously as Kalau Lagau Ya, Kalaw Lagaw Ya or Kala Lagaw Ya, now largely replaced by Torres Strait Creole.
The earliest archaeological occupation phase dates to between 8000 - 6000 years ago, when the island of Badu was still connected to ‘Greater Australia’. This is associated with Australian, rather than Papuan peoples. As the island became cut off with rising sea levels, the occupation became sporadic, with visits from Australia between 3500 and 3000 years ago. After this a permanent settlement was established. Given that Lapita pottery does not appear in the region until between 2500 and 2000 years ago, it is reasonable to assume that these early settlers of at least the Western group were Australians, an observation bore out by early ethnographic studies of the islands. This also matches the general expansion into marine habitats across the Queensland and Great Barrier Reef regions noted by Lilley:
“Expansion of island use commencing around 3000–3500 years ago is linked to population increases sustained by synchronous increases in marine resources … The viability of risky offshore canoe voyaging was underwritten by two key high-return subsistence pursuits—hunting green turtles and collecting turtle eggs.”
Fascinatingly though, there is no evidence of Lapita/Austronesian population or even intermarriage incursion southwards onto the Cape York peninsula mainland. As a 2021 genetics paper concludes:
“Analyses of the available genomic data of the Indigenous Australian uniparental and whole genomes have shown no detectable signature of Austronesian gene flow along the east coast of Cape York in the last 3000 years… It is perhaps time to start considering that the diffusion of culture along the east coast of Cape York may have largely been facilitated by Aboriginal seafarers in a dynamic socio-cultural space where overlapping zones of interaction occurred.”
What Did The Austronesians Ever Do For Us?
We’ve seen so far that the Austronesian presence in Australia was limited to the marine environment and islands chains surrounding the north-east region. This may well be as a result of increased archaeological work in this contact zone, but it makes sense that this would be the targeted area for Austronesian seafaring, trade and fishing. So did this contact and diffusion of peoples and technology have an impact back on the mainland? As far as we know there has never been an Aboriginal pottery tradition, nor any evidence for Pacific-style horticulture - no pigs, chickens, rice or other crops. (although Aboriginal horticulture does seem to have occurred on the Western Torres islands). What hints are there for any trade or diffusion?
The horticultural root crop taro, Colocasia esculenta, was a key species in the Austronesian Neolithic package. Curiously this plant is found across Arnhem Land, but as a feralised variant of the original - Colocasia esculenta var. aquatilis. A female missionary to the area, Dulice Levitt, wrote a book entitled Plants and People: Aboriginal Use of Plants on Groote Eylandt, in which she speculates that wild taro is the remnant of a failed or abandoned horticultural experiment in northern Australia. Another plant which could have come with the Austronesians is Bambusa arnhemica, an Asiatic bamboo found again in the north. This obscure species is not well characterised and a debate exists over whether the plant is native to Australia, but one possibility is that it came with people from the northern Pacific. A very curious reverse case is the Polynesian field cricket, Teleogryllus oceanicus. This cricket is native to Australia, but somehow found its way throughout the Polynesian islands, in much the same way as rats. The authors of a 2011 paper looking at the genetics of this insect conclude that its arrival in Hawaii predated European colonisation, and could only have come from interaction between the Polynesian and Australian worlds.
Trade between the mainland Cape York area, the Aboriginal occupied Torres islands and the wider Papuan-Austronesian world did exist, but it appears to be highly asymmetrical. In a 1978 paper by David R. Moore, he lists a number of goods which flowed to the Kaurareg Torres Aboriginal people:
“This made it clear that the Kaurareg took part fully in the general informal trading system of Torres Strait, obtaining a great variety of desired goods ranging from Fly River double-outrigger sailing canoes, drums, bows-and-arrows, stone clubs and various foodstuffs to cassowary feathers and bird-of-paradise skins from the New Guinea highlands. In return they sent pearl shell, harpoons, dried fish, human heads and sometimes wives.”
This information is dated to around the late 1840’s and comes from a variety of sources, most notably from a young Scots girl - Barbara Thompson - who was shipwrecked in 1844. She was the only survivor and was taken in by the Kaurareg. Here she obviously witnessed a great deal about life on the Western Torres islands and the interactions between the Aboriginal middlemen and the mainlanders on both New Guinea and Australia. Crucially she reports that relations between the Kaurareg and many Cape York groups were hostile, with the exception of the Gudang people. Trade from Cape York was essentially non-existent, the only materials desired by the Torres islanders were spears and ochre. Despite this, many Cape York Aboriginals had access to cast off outrigger canoes, drums, bamboo smoking pipes and tobacco. The Kaurareg often sailed down the coastline, most likely to harvest marine foods, but also for the limited trade it offered. While these interactions are much later than the earlier Holocene Lapita-Aboriginal contacts, it gives some clues as to the state of relations and the type of trade available.
Austronesian loanwords in Aboriginal languages spoken in the Torres, Cape York and surrounding regions is no great surprise. New technologies and plants clearly made their way south even without colonisation, but what is far more revealing is the presence of Austronesian words within the general Pama-Nyungan language family itself. Recall that Pama-Nyungan is the dominant group of languages spoken by the majority of Aboriginal peoples - 306 of 400 languages. The shockingly fast development and spread of Pama-Nyungan is a mysterious topic which I dealt with in the last article, although definitive explanations are thin on the ground, in no small part due to the almost total lack of interest amongst archaeologists and linguists, even in Australia.
Pama-Nyungan is estimated to have arisen from Proto-Pama-Nyugan around 4,000 -6,000 years ago somewhere in the northern Gulf Plains. Since the language has been relatively understudied compared to other major language families there is a lot of speculation and preliminary work, but a great paper by O’Grady & Tryon attempts to highlight deep Austronesian loanwords within the group. They present the following list of words with their possible roots:
Proto-Nuclear Pama-Nyungan (PNPN) *payung shelter, protection Proto-Austronesian (PAN) * payung shelter, protection, shade, cover
PNPN *taparr round object, heavenly body. PCP *daba *raba morning, sky.
PNPN *malung shade, spirit PAN *m-al J[n]u, Proto-Eastern Oceanic (PEa) *malu shade, shadow
PNPN *punga shade, shadow, spirit, darkness PAN *bEng[I], POC *mpongl night, dark, evening
PNPN *ngAlu wave, swell, current PAN *alun, *qalun, POC *(ng)alu, PPNz (Proto-Polynesian) *ngalu wave, breakers, swell, undulation ; PCP *Galu current
PNPN *jAku play, miming, dancing POC *sangka(q) step, sway, vigorous motions with hand and/or foot
PNPN *pula feather, hair POC *pulu hair, feather
PNPN *mAya language PAN(C), POCGR (OC) *maya tongue
They conclude the paper with the following observation:
“If the putative Austronesian loanwords listed above entered Nuclear Pama-Nyungan from daughter languages of the Oceanic subgroup of Austronesian, then this would have important implications for the history and dating of Pama-Nyungan. For it is generally recognised that it has its origins in the New Guinea area approximately 4,000 years ago. Participation of these fonns in Pama-Nyungan sound shifts would appear to ensure that they have been present from an early Pama-Nyungan stage. In this case Pama-Nyungan itself cannot be older than perhaps 5000 years. The very impulse for the spread of Pama-Nyungan may well have been provided by the contact with Austronesian speakers and culture in the north-east of the continent. The technological innovations brought by the Austronesians would clearly have had an effect on speakers of early Pama-Nyungan both linguistically and culturally.”
The Case For Austronesian Contact
If we combine the evidence I’ve accumulated so far, along with the two interesting points from the previous article - that Madagascan elephant bird eggs and a Lapita mythological motif both appear on the Australian mainland - then we get the following scenario:
The Australian world became separated from the rest of humanity long before the Sahel land bridge is submerged. After this we see a flurry of Aboriginal marine travel to reach the Western Torres islands and many island groups off the east coast around the Great Barrier Reef. Austronesian contact comes both from New Guinea, as Lapita voyagers reach the remaining Torres islands, and from the direction of the Solomon islands, as some form of cultural hybridisation and ceramics appear on Lizard island. Around this time (~5,000 years ago), we see the emergence and spread of Pama-Nyungan from the northern regions across the rest of Australia. Then around 3,500 years ago the dingo was introduced to Australia from New Guinea. Very limited trade and diffusion of plants and sailing technology impacts only the north of the continent and neither ceramics nor horticulture appear to have been adopted by the Aboriginal peoples.
This then is the extent of contact as far as we can tell, and certainly by the 19th century the reports from Cape York and the Torres islands suggest that trade was of minor importance and a state of hostility existed between the mainland Aboriginal peoples and the mixed groups living in the Torres Strait.
Where Does This Leave Us?
I have attempted to highlight, over three articles, some of the major mysteries and unexplained portions of Australian prehistory - the problem of analysing Palaeolithic remains; the debates over Aboriginal Pygmies and Tasmanians; the possibility of Dravidian contact; the origins and growth of Pama-Nyungan; the proliferation of a new stone tool type; the introduction of the dingo; the scattered floral and faunal evidence for Austronesian contact; the evidence for Lapita ceramics and contact on various Australian islands and so on. At present the consensus view is that the Aboriginal peoples arrived once and only once, as a result of the Southern Dispersal route out of Africa, and contact was non-existent with the outside world until the Sulawesi Macassan sailors began harvesting sea cucumbers in the mid 18th century.
An outstanding problem, which I touched on in my first article, is the deep connection between different archaic hominins, in particular the Denisovans and possibly Homo erectus, with the earliest humans to arrive in Australia. Given the very recent awareness of the Denisovans as a species we don’t yet know if they made it to Australia first. To quote from the 2016 Aboriginal genome analysis paper previously mentioned:
“We find that Aboriginal Australians and Eurasians share genomic signatures of an OoA [Out of Africa] dispersal—a common African ancestor, a bottleneck and a primary pulse of Neanderthal admixture. However, Aboriginal Australian population history diverged from that of other Eurasians shortly after the OoA event, and included private admixture with another archaic hominin.”
Given the decades of debate surrounding Aboriginal fossil and phenotype analysis, it is not far-fetched to suggest that Aboriginal peoples differ from their neighbours to some degree by way of Palaeolithic archaic admixture, although how this would have come about requires access to Aboriginal fossils and further excavations in southeast Asia. I propose that the earliest migrations to Australia by modern humans were not a singular event, but rather a series of arrivals which allows for the deep phenotypic diversity seen in the fossil and ethnographic record (robust, gracile and pygmoid statures). Joseph Birdsell’s Trihybrid Migration theory may well be correct
Post-Pleistocene migrations to Australia do seem to be either non-existent or very limited. The genetic drift seen in the few Aboriginal genomes that have been analysed show clearly that their haplogroup differentiation is deep and profound - truly the Aboriginal peoples have been separated from the rest of humanity for many many millennia. The only possible Holocene migration could be south Indian in origin, which aligns oral testimony, the limited genetic studies and Joseph Birdsell’s proposal that the northern Aboriginals looked more Dravidian than the rest of the population (the Carpentarians). The evidence for this is shaky at best but cannot be completely ruled out. Birdsell’s Trihybrid Migration theory may well be correct, but I want to leave the question of Oceanic Negritos for another article.
Finally the contact with the Austronesian world seems more extensive and far better evidenced, but again, the inroads into the continent were extremely limited compared to the rest of the Oceanic world. One possibility is that a pioneering group of Lapita voyagers did land somewhere around the Gulf of Carpentaria and did settle to some degree, establishing connections which brought the dingo, a variety of crops and sparked off the Pama-Nyungan Expansion. But the details of this are speculative. If this initial contact period did occur, it left no major genetic evidence and failed to root the Lapita Neolithic way of life among the Aboriginal people. It may have ended badly, in conflict, which ultimately drove the newcomers away, after which all contact came through the Torres Strait, mediated by their Aboriginal cousins on the Western islands. The difference in temperament between the horizon gazing Austronesians and the insular conservative Aboriginals is hard to explain, coming down to a cultural and genetic cleft, a legacy of the long separation and differentiation between different peoples.
If these conclusions feel frustrating, I share your pain. I’ve spent months researching these topics, reading numerous books and likely several hundred papers. What is striking to me is how little curiosity there is in many of these problems within academia. Some archaeologists share this feeling, that the Australian research world has become myopic in its declaration that the Aboriginal peoples have little to nothing to do with the rest of the world. Hopefully I have at least sparked some curiosity in my readers and have been able to highlight the outstanding questions in this area. I may return one day to add some further thoughts, but certainly for the time being I’m happy to leave the subject of Australian prehistory and its many enigmas and move on.
Bibliography (not included in text)
Oceanic Explorations: Lapita and Western Pacific Settlement (Terra Australis) - Stuart Bedford, Christophe Sand and Sean P. Connaughton
Wangga: The Linguistic and Typological Evidence for the Sources of the Outrigger Canoes of Torres Strait and Cape York Peninsula (2018) - Ray Wood
The distribution, abundance and diversity of the Lapita Cultural Complex along the Great Barrier Reef coastline (2012) - M Felgate
Remapping the Austronesian expansion (2009) Roger Blench
Australia and the Austronesians (2005) - Peter Bellwood and Peter Hiscock, Australian National University
First Austronesian contacts with mainland Southeast Asia and Northern Australia (2000) - lan Walters
Farming and Language in Island Southeast Asia. Reframing Austronesian History (2010)- Mark Donohue Tim Denham
Beyond ‘Macassans’: Speculations on layers of Austronesian contact in northern Australia (2021) - Antoinette Schappe