Tuesday, January 26, 2010

297. Aftermath 12: Australia and New Guinea

At the time of the early migrations, water levels in the oceans were much lower than they are today, and as a result many of the islands of Island Southeast Asia were linked with the Malaysian mainland to form a single peninsula, called Sunda; and Australia and New Guinea were also linked, to form a single continent, Sahul:

As you can see from the map, the low water levels meant that a sea crossing by island hopping from Sunda to Sahul would not have been too much of a challenge -- especially since, as is now suspected, the Out of Africa migrants had already been doing much of their traveling by boat. Since some of the earliest archaeological evidence of modern human habitation associated with the Out of Africa migration comes from Australia, and since some of the arguably "oldest" populations (based on both their genetic and cultural makeup) now live in New Guinea and Australia, it stands to reason that the Sahul must have been part of the earliest migration along the "southern route."

But there is a problem. If Sahul were populated by Out of Africa migrants when both New Guinea and Australia were joined into a single landmass, as illustrated in the above map, and both regions had remained relatively isolated from then to now, as has been argued, we would expect the populations that now live in both places to be quite similar, both morphologically and culturally. And we would certainly assume that they'd be closely related genetically as well. This, however, is not the case. There are in fact many differences between the peoples of New Guinea and Australia:

1. New Guinea is far more complex and heterogeneous both morphologically and culturally, with many different groups living in fairly close proximity to one another, and constantly at war with one another, which tended to isolate the various groups in place, possibly for tens of thousands of years. Australia would appear to be much more homogeneous in both respects, with almost all aborigines sharing distinctively "Australoid" features and having many cultural traditions in common. It's also worth noting that the Tasmanians, who are now extinct, are thought to have resembled Melanesians more than other Australians; and that there is very good evidence of the existence of Negrito peoples in some parts of the continent, as recently as the early 20th century.

2. Possibly because of their prolonged isolation from one another, due to warfare, there are far more different languages and language families in New Guinea than anywhere else on Earth. By comparison, most of Australia is dominated by a single language family, called Pama-Nyungan. Wikipedia lists 15 other language families for Australia, but these are all crowded into a relatively small area in the north, in the region which is, significantly, closest to New Guinea.

3. Musically, New Guinea is a relatively heterogeneous island, with several different vocal styles and many different types of instruments. In several cases, we find the African signature, in the form of P/B-related vocal styles and also instances of instrumental hocket, especially with wind ensembles of pipes, panpipes, trumpets and flutes, unmistakably African in origin. Among other groups, we find various types of unison singing, sometimes similar to what we find in Australia. And in still other cases, we hear relatively simple polyphonic vocalizing not unlike Western Polynesian singing. Australia, on the other hand, is among the most musically homogeneous regions in the world, with a characteristically tense, nasal vocal style, either solo or unison, accompanied by sticks or boomerangs beaten together to produce relatively simple one-beat rhythms or simple variants of the one-beat pattern. This type of singing, characterized, as is North American Indian singing, by the iteration of a single note at the beginnings and endings of phrases, pervades the entire continent, so far as I've been able to determine, though occasionally one hears something more complex, with traces of polyphony and even interlock. The only important musical instrument is the Didgeridoo, which was traditionally found only in the north and is thought to be a relatively recent innovation. The above descriptions are deceptive, however, as Australian singing and Didgeridoo playing are among the most sophisticated musical art forms in the entire world. The texts that go with these songs are also remarkable examples of highly sophisticated, allusive and complex poetry.

So we are faced with the very interesting question of why these two populations, despite certain intriguing similarities, are so different in so many ways.

(to be continued . . . )


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

The mystery presented has been quite definitively solved by multiple means both linguistic and genetic.

Australia was in isolation from not long after its initial colonization by modern humans (which spread to New Guinea and Tasmania), when sea levels rose, until the 1800s, when European explorers arrived. The only exception to this lack of contact which as left measurable traces was the introduction of a quite small population of dingos (with little genetic diversity) from SE Asia after mainland Australia was separate from New Guinea and Tasmania.

New Guinea's next wave of outside contact came much sooner from Asian seafarers (probably with Taiwanese origins in an earlier phase of the same civilization that settled polynesia). These settlers, whose travels did not bring them to Australia or Tasmania, brough New Guinea linguistic, cultural and genetic diversity. The musical conclusion merely confirms well established existing findings.

DocG said...

Hi Andrew, nice to see you posting here, thanks.

I'm assuming the "Asian seafarers" you're referring to are the Austronesians, whose culture and language apparently originated relatively recently, during the early Holocene. And you're right in reminding me that this culture did bring a certain amount of diversity.

However, since Austronesian speakers in N. Guinea have apparently always been confined to the coastal regions, and the inhabitants of the interior highlands have a very different culture, and completely different, probably much older, languages, much of the mystery remains.

The African signature I'm referring to, in the form of a style of music we commonly find among certain isolated groups in Africa (what I call Pygmy/Bushmen style) seems to be confined mostly to the New Guinea Highlands, at least as far as the vocal traditions are concerned. The Austronesian speakers on the coast appear to have very different musical styles (though much is still to be learned about the music of many of these groups).

While some of the older, Highland peoples resemble Australians physically, others do not. And it is the Highland languages that show the greatest diversity, not the Austronesian ones, which all belong to a single family. Since the Austronesians are generally regarded as a relatively recent import, it's really the Highlanders that I'm usually referring to when I write about the Out of Africa connection.

I hope you'll continue to read here and continue to comment as you see fit. I should be adding another post on this topic either later today or tomorrow.