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Seminar: Late Holocene expansion of Pama-Nyungan Groups in North-Western Australia, Patrick McConvell, 13 Apr

Australian National University

Date: 19 February 2018

Seminar: Late Holocene expansion of Pama-Nyungan Groups in North-Western Australia

Speaker: Patrick McConvell

Venue: Engma Room (5019), HC Coombs Building, ANU

When: 13 April 2018, 3.30pm-5.00pm


Language families and sub-groups have been widely assumed to have spread out over the prehistory of Australia by demic expansion, that is by people migrating, as has happened on all other continents. In particular the Pama-Nyungan family of languages is thought to have spread from north-eastern Australia in the mid-Holocene to cover the great bulk of the continent. However , one highly publicised recent did come out with surprising findings, supposedly showing that Aboriginal people have largely remained in place in the areas they occupied when they arrived about 60,000 years ago. One way to tackle this issue would be to examine the genomics of neighbouring groups along the Pama-Nyungan – non-Pama-Nyungan boundary, using existing data-sets. It seems unlikely that this will happen in the near future.

Here however I take a different approach. Apart from mid-Holocene movement of Pama-Nyungan speakers west and south, there is a great deal of evidence that groups of people along the northern edge of Pama-Nyungan migrated north in the late Holocene, and also caused language shift on the part of northern Non-Pama-Nyungan speakers that they ‘moved in on’. The focus of the paper is on the northern movement of a number of languages of the Ngumpin-Yapa sub-group of Pama-Nyungan, from the semi-desert into the riverene areas of the Victoria River district and the South Kimberley, WA,, impacting various Non-Pama-Nyungan language families such as Mirndi, Wardaman, Jarragan, Bunaban and Nyulnyulan. This paper reviews the genetic evidence from pre-molecular studies, and assesses what archaeology can tell us about the movement of people. This is not easy, as migration is generally not part of the vocabulary of archaeology in Australia, but combined with linguistics and local legends it can tell a story of how and when people moved Two areas of the etymological study of vocabulary are particularly valuable for the study of migration: place names (toponyms) and names of groups of people (ethnonyms). These various strands can be brought together to provide a hypothesis of how and when the latest expansion of Pama-Nyungan into the tropics occurred. Given these findings in this region a model of people and their descendants remaining in the same vicinity for 50,000 years is highly improbable.

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