Monday, June 14, 2010

Language - Aboriginal culture

A third feature of Aboriginal culture that is evident today and indicative of great changes over the tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal residence in Australia is the clustering of all Aboriginal languages into two large groups, Pama-Nyungan and non-Pama-Nyungan, which is sometimes also called Arafuran (Clendon 2006). The former family includes the languages spoken in nine-tenths of the country’s geographic territory, from the rain forests of Queensland to the temperate regions of Western Australia and Victoria, including most of the arid center of the country. The latter category, however, contains 90 percent of the continent’s precolonial language diversity in just 10 percent of its territory (see map on page 14). Many theories have been put forward to explain both the prevalence of Pama-Nyungan throughout the continent, despite its relatively young age, estimated at about 5,000 years (O’Grady and Hale 2004, 91), and the great diversity of the non- Pama-Nyungan languages. Some of these theories include the separation of these two groups in antiquity and subsequent differentiation over time; others posit that an incoming migratory group introduced dingoes, new stone tool technology, and Pama-Nyungan languages several thousand years ago (Mulvaney and Kamminga 1999, 73–74). It is more likely, according to O’Grady and Hale, that a single population spread their language across nine tenths of the continent as a result of an unknown internal factor. Some hypotheses concerning this spread include innovations in intellectual property such as songlines, kinship structures, and art styles; developments in material culture; or natural causes (O’Grady and Hale 2004, 92).

As is evident from these few select cultural features and historical trends, even prior to the colonial period in Australia the continent housed a dynamic, diverse population that over many millennia had continually adapted to climate and social change. The Aboriginal Australians living in the far north of the country had also adapted to a trading regime, with fishermen and traders visiting their territory from the islands of contemporary Indonesia. Although the exact date of their first landing in Australia is unknown, the early 15th century is posited as the most probable time when fishermen from the north first arrived in large numbers. Macassan hunters of trepang began to interact with Aboriginal Australians two centuries later. The Chinese may also have landed in the far north, although it is possible that the Ming dynasty statue found near Darwin was carried by Macassans rather than Chinese sailors themselves.