|Distribution of the Pama-Nyungan languages (yellow). Non-Pama-Nyungan in other colours. As I say below, it matches the distribution of backed unifacial stone blades. h/t Wiki.|
- a) Bellwood accepts the view of the majority of Australian linguists that Pama-Nyungan is a real, genetically-related language family, descended from a common ancestor; this view was challenged by R. M. W. Dixon, the maverick Australian linguist, but is now the consensus.
- b) Bellwood also accepts that the family is of a relatively recent origin, and isn't, as Dixon and others claimed, a disparate phylum dating backed tens of thousands of years. Bellwood places its origin in the mid-Holocene, c.4000 BP (approx. 2000 BCE), as did Pat McConvell, and others.
- c) Bellwood also associates it with the spread of backed unifacial blades (stone blades intended to be attached to handles and used for a wide variety of purposes) across most of continental Australia in the mid-Holocene. There is a strongly overlapping distribution of backed unifacials at archaeological sites and Pama-Nyungan languages, and backed unifacials are unknown in the areas in which non-Pama-Nyungan indigenous languages were once spoken. I discussed this in my post on the topic, and it forms the core of my own argument about Pama-Nyungan.
- d) he associates backed unifacials, and therefore implicitly Pama-Nyungan, with the Toalian (or Toalean) archaeological culture of mid-Holocene South Sulawesi, Indonesia.
I'll discuss d) first. The Toalean is an archaeological culture of South Sulawesi best known from the site of Maros, excavated by Ian Glover in the 1960s. It has been described by David Bulbeck et al here, in a paper on the wonderful website of OXIS, run by Ian Caldwell. It was a pre-Neolithic (and therefore almost certainly pre-Austronesian) archaeological culture that I'm familiar with primarily due to the presence of arrowheads in the assemblage, the so-called 'Maros points', conventionally dated c.5500-3500 BP (approx. 3500-1500 BCE). (I have a research proposal on archery in eastern Indonesia that I'm hoping to get funding for, so this is familiar territory for me.)
|Maros points in the British Museum, excavated by Ian Glover. I think these are the very ones on display in the Southeast Asia section. h/t The British Museum.|
|All the way from Sulawesi to Australia for this. h/t Wiki.|
The technologies are similar and the distance is not insurmountable, so what we need is more research. Specifically, we need some ancient DNA ('aDNA') from recovered Toalean specimens to compare with Australian aDNA from mid-Holocene sites - this is probably the only viable research option, given that the pre-Austronesian languages of South Sulawesi have entirely disappeared from the earth. Ancient DNA is difficult, though, and given that the native inhabitants of Sulawesi probably had a lot in common, genetically, with indigenous Australians, it would be hard to show even if good samples could be recovered, which isn't assured. Bellwood concedes this, and I think he's right to raise the possibility of a Sulawesian connection.*
Now for a), b), and c).
a) and b) I'll leave to the linguists. As a layperson when it comes to the details of ancient Australian languages, I can only go with the consensus. The consensus is that Dixon was wrong, and that Pama-Nyungan is a language family with a single ancestral language, proto-Pama-Nyungan, which had a recent origin in the mid-Holocene.
Moreover, the distribution argument is compelling, and makes sense of Pama-Nyungan's time-depth: we may conclude that Pama-Nyungan and backed unifacial blades are related and dispersed together. What this means is that if we can make sense of the distribution of backed unifacial technology in Australia, we can probably make sense of the dispersal of Pama-Nyungan, as the two seem to be related beyond reasonable doubt.
The earlier Evans-McConvell model of Pama-Nyungan explained the expansion of both the language family and the stone tools by proposing that, in the mid-Holocene, favourable climate made resource exploitation easier (especially foods from wild cycads), and that the people most affected by this used the surplus generated to hold large celebrations that could help incorporate new members into their groups. These people were supposed to be the speakers of proto-Pama-Nyungan, who used backed unifacials to better exploit the abundance. Bellwood takes the model as given, although he doesn't explicitly endorse it (he's more interested in the Toalean connection).
The problem with this is that it is now known to be wrong, as Peter Hiscock shows in his Archaeology of Ancient Australia. The large-scale cycad exploitation actually dates to over ten thousand years prior to the mid-Holocene, and probably had nothing to do with Pama-Nyungan; certainly there was no explosive growth in resource exploitation at the time Pama-Nyungan probably expanded. More importantly, the climate was at its worst in the mid-Holocene, with extremely dry conditions prevalent across the continent. Backed unifacials therefore probably came about as an efficient means of overcoming the problem of harvesting scarce resources in a dessicated environment, and the tools probably spread so quickly across Australia due to the need for even small populations to spread themselves thinly in order to exploit the available resources.
Hiscock considers this the most reasonable argument about backed unifacial technology (without mentioning the Pama-Nyungan connection), and, given the correlation between Pama-Nyungan and backed unifacials, it must also be the ultimate explanation of Pama-Nyungan. While Bellwood says nothing that invalidates this view, it is curious that he doesn't mention it, despite citing The Archaeology of Ancient Australia in his account (albeit about a different topic). I find this strange, and assume it means that the archaeologists and the linguists need to have a chat about backed unifacials and Pama-Nyungan, because they aren't reading from the same hymn sheet.
Despite this absence, Bellwood's account is surprisingly good. I say 'surprisingly', because some of Bellwood's views take unorthodox positions on language that swim strongly against the mainstream, but in this case, most of what he says is part of the consensus, and, as ever, it's compellingly-argued and based on recent and interesting research. I already recommended it in my 2013 review, but I'll recommend it here again: First Migrants is a good book about human migration in prehistory, and covers a lot of obscure subjects in interesting ways, including Pama-Nyungan. Where the mainstream disagrees with him, at least Bellwood proposes interesting and possibly worthwhile interpretations, although I do feel he could pay more attention to the linguistic arguments than he does at present.
*We need aDNA because some people have claimed that Pama-Nyungan/the dingo/backed unifacials were transmitted to Australia by migrants from India. This is on the basis of a single study showing that modern indigenous Australian populations sometimes show the presence of genotypes from South India. Without aDNA, no realistic case can be made (and in any case, the dingo's DNA is clearly Southeast Asian).