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Archaeology and Linguistics: Aboriginal Australia in Global Perspective. (Reviews).

Edited by Patric McConvell and Nicholas Evans

Melbourne: Oxford University Press. 1977


Price: $65.00

This hook and the 1991 conference which gave rise to it will probably come to be viewed as marking a particular turning point in the history of ideas about the ancient past of Australia. The central contribution of the book is not so much the way it informs us factually about the past, although there is plenty of that, but in its demonstration of the exciting possibilities arising from a new level of intellectual integration between relevant disciplines and sources of knowledge.

The relevant sources which are identified by the editors (p2) are Aboriginal oral traditions, archaeology, linguistics, genetics, sociocultural anthropology and ethnography. The editors and a number of the volume's contributors display an unusually rich grasp of discoveries and theoretical developments in more than just one or two disciplines. Yet it is in the leavening of the total combination of talents here that there seems to arise something greater than merely the sum of disparate bodies of knowledge that have been added together. If ever there was a clear demonstration of the difference between knowledge and information this is it.

The curiosity of the polymath, combined with intellectual rigour and a good instinct for detecting when one is getting out of one's depth, are usually not enough to save the isolated scholar from the odd embarrassingly misguided trespass into foreign fields. This is why a functioning and communicating group of scholars who share a common interest but come to it from different disciplinary perspectives is critical to real interdisciplinary research. While this volume concentrates on Australia, it also benefits from a section in which scholars present the results of similar work on the Asian mainland, in the Americas, Austronesia and the wider world.

The scholarly community focused on Indigenous Australia is more than merely functioning. Many of its members know each other well and have done so over periods of, in quite a few cases, two or three decades. Many have worked together in the past, or have worked in similar and sometimes extreme situations in places far apart. Many consequently share bonds stronger than those merely of collegiality. They constitute an intellectual community, the perpetuation of which cannot be assumed. The boom in Aboriginal studies from the 1970s onward brought many of the volume's contributors into the scene, but an earlier stratum of key people is visible in the author line-up, including Isabel McBryde, Geoff O'Grady and Rhys Jones. Most of the volume s contributors come from the cohort of those who graduated in the late 1960s and the 1970s.

While archaeology, historical linguistics and genetics inevitably focus on the past, sociocultural anthropology is still undergoing a re-emergence of interest in the diachronic, a resurgence which is reflected in the concerns of this book. In the Aboriginal case, Patrick McConvell, both linguist and anthropologist, has spearheaded such work since the 1980s. The other main anthropological development reflected here is a re-engagement with large regional, continental and even wider processes of cultural development, change and interaction, after a period dominated from the 1930s to the 1970s by an anthropological emphasis on synchronic studies of small and localised populations. Ian Keen's programmatic paper on Aboriginal Australia as a regional system, consisting of networks of interactions between the relatively local and the relatively regional, promises much of interest in the future publication of his researches on the subject.

At the core of many of the more interesting presentations here is a set of conjunctions between different cultural and physical manifestations which occurred at roughly the same time. The most apparent case in point is the emergence, between about 5000 and 3000 BP, of the distinctive small tool tradition, an expanded staple vegetable food repertoire, a marked intensification of population, important changes in rock art styles, the development of more widespread trade networks, and the expansion of the Pama-Nyungan subgroup of languages to occupy the greater part of the continent (see especially the papers by Evans and Jones, Layton, Allen, and McConvell). Although the Pama-Nyungan construct, as a genetic rather than a typological entity, has long been under fire from R.M.W. Dixon, Nicholas Evans mounts a spirited defence of it (pp.388-392).

Among the problematic issues raised by the book is the hoary one of whether the expansion or movement of a particular stock of language varieties necessarily entails an expansion or movement of population. In theory, new languages can be adopted by an existing population, or speakers of a new language can conquer and replace an older population whose language dies with it. Frequently, though, the recorded cases fall somewhere between these two extremes, so that there is often some variable admixture of cultural change and biological merging or replacement, unless wholesale slaughter of the vanquished occurs.

Neville White's paper in this volume is the only one that takes a specialist look at relationships between Aboriginal linguistic identities and biological measures of similarity and distance. Using a variety of bases for constructing phylogenetic trees, White presents various assessments of genetic distances between populations identified sometimes by place of collection and sometimes by linguistic or other ethnic identity. There is a recurrent suggestion in the data that the nearest relatives of the Yolngu of north-cast Arnhem Land are in the area of Edward River in western Cape York Peninsula. Both are Pama-Nyungan language areas but they are separated not only by non-Pama-Nyungan languages but also, in recent millennia, by the Gulf of Carpentaria. Although hedged with a few caveats by White, this is exactly the kind of evidence that should stimulate future directions of research on the origins and spread of Pama-Nyungan varieties and the relationship between their geographical expansion and the biological fate of Australia's ancient populations.

The title of the paper by Nicholas Evans and Rhys Jones which concludes this very stimulating collection, 'The cradle of the Pama-Nyungans', echoes both the language and the intellectual concerns of late Victorian anthropology. In a way the whole volume is a 'coming out' of genuine intellectual passion for the ancient. Suddenly, it seems, we are back with the question of ethnic origins, prehistoric migrations, diffusion of traits, even culture circles. To dismiss all this as irrelevant antiquarianism is to miss the relevance of the antiquarian. Trying to understand the role of language in human society and culture in a comprehensive sense but without the benefit of the diachronic is a hopeless fantasy. The issues are wider than the merely academic. Cultural prehistory is to Australia, potentially and politically, what great and ancient monuments are to other regions of the world. An interest in the deep past can add an enriching and sobering side to a country's sense of itself.

The Victorians had limited means at their disposal in tackling and testing such concerns. Now, after a vast amount of primary descriptive linguistic, archaeological and genetic research, a basis for real advances in understanding key aspects of the long-term picture of Indigenous Australia has been reached. Local application of advances in DNA study methods, if the ethical politics can be navigated successfully, may be vital to the next quantum leap.

However that may be, this book seems to me a very welcome bellwether of redirection in Australian Indigenous studies, towards better disciplinary reintegration in trying to answer specific questions, and towards reinstating the attraction of the deep past as a serious pull on the best anthropological minds of our time.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Sutton, Peter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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