Abstract - Evans, Hiscock and others

Course: Australia'd deep human past

Convenor: Nick Evans

This course brings together perspectives on Australia’s deep human past, from five disciplines: linguistics, archaeology, anthropology, genetics and the study of ancient environments. Each field has powerful tools but also notable blind spots. Integrating the insights from these five fields is a major challenge, but by bringing them together we have some chance of reaching a deeper and more holistic understanding of the continent’s 50,000 year old human history. Twenty years ago, two of the course-givers edited an attempt at synthesis based on what was known at the time (McConvell & Evans 1997, though a significant omission was any chapter addressing environmental change), but there have been numerous advances in all relevant fields since then and this course will revisit the problem in the light of all that has been discovered since. While the main focus of the course is on the Australian ‘hemi-continent’ of the ancient continent of Sahul, the fact that Australia has only been separated from New Guinea for less than 20% of its shared human history means that material from ‘the other hemi-continent’ will also be touched upon where relevant. To maximise interaction between disciplines, each session will consist of a 60 minute presentation (or 2 x 30 in some cases) followed by a brief response from each of the other fields, then open discussion.

McConvell, Patrick & Nicholas Evans. (eds.) 1997. Archaeology and Linguistics: Global Perspectives on Ancient Australia.  Melbourne: Oxford University Press. 

Nick Evans Patrick McConvell Ian Keen Peter Hiscock Raymond Tobler Laura Weyrick Simon Haberle Bert Roberts

Level and cumulativity

Prerequisites: None other than a willingness to engage with material from a wide range of disciplines.

Cumulativity: In principle it will be possible to attend any one or any combination of the classes, though obviously the whole integrative purpose of the course will be better served if you can attend the entire five meetings.

Monday November 27th:  Linguistics (Presenter: Nick Evans)

This session will consider a number of central questions in Australia’s deep linguistic past. Certainly all Australian languages are similar in many points of how their sound systems, grammars, and meaning structure are organised, but does this mean they all related? What is the reason for the striking asymmetry in how deep linguistic diversity is distributed across the continent, with a single family (Pama-Nyungan) found over seven-eighths of the area, and the northwest (Top End, southwestern Gulf, and Kimberley) hosting a much greater diversity of families (around twenty ‘non-Pama-Nyungan’ families). Why are there such striking discrepancies in the level of diversity found in Australia on the one hand, and New Guinea on the other? What can we learn from the study of contact with non-Australian linguistics, across the Torres Strait and (with Macassans) in Arnhem Land. What are the points of purchase between historical linguists’ reconstructions of the continent’s linguistic past and those built by other fields?

Sessions following to be confirmed for time and day:  

Anthropology (Presenters: Patrick McConvell & Ian Keen) 

Archaeology (Presenter: Peter Hiscock)

Genetics (Presenters: Raymond Tobler & Laura Weyrick)

Friday December 1st: Ancient Environments (Presenter: Simon Haberle & Bert Roberts)

Abstracts to follow

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University

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