General Logic and Themes of the Conference

by Hal Fleming

The "Year of the Australoid" combines the interests of scholars who have sought to unveil the substrata under the ‘standard’ or ‘established’ languages or families of languages of South Asia, the scholars interested in finding relatives or taxonomic niches in which to locate such salient isolates as Kusunda of Nepal or Nihali of India, with more established families such asAndamanese of the Bay of Bengal, Papuan of New Guinea, Australian, and Tasmanian. The somewhat controversial collation of families of southeast Asia under the rubric of Austric is included here as well as the membership of some non-Austronesian languages of Indonesia, i.e., Timor-Alor-Pantar languages and those of North Halmahera , all told 30 more or less, in Joseph Greenberg’s proposed Indo-Pacific super-phylum of languages.

However we shall also be interested in aspects of the physical anthropology problem presented by the Australoid hypothesis which detects a series of populations located in bits and pieces in the entire area from northern India to eastern Indonesia, populations who differ physically from the dominant peoples of their areas, who also bear resemblances to the peoples of New Guinea, Australia, Tasmania, and some parts of Melanesia, Hence the term ‘Australoid’ This term is long established in the nomenclature of biological anthropology where it enjoys the status of ‘controversial’.

One champion of the term was Carleton Coon, former professor at Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Were he alive today Coon would be famous for championing two theories with which most contemporary physical  anthropologists disagree. The one was the concept of race as a viable and useful tool in human taxonomy; the other was multilateral co-evolution whereby each major race is descended in situ from a distinct major fossil ancestor or the ancestral population of its present area ...

Five observable traits characterized the Australoid ‘type’, viz., dark skin, curly hair, frizzly hair, prominent brow ridges, and very short stature. Only the last two of these traits could actually be associated with any fossil ancestor, but all except the brow ridges are found plentifully in Africa which is exceeded only by Australia and New Guinea where all are found. Thus a kind of phenotypic link between Africa and Australia, via Greater India, was established ­long before the Out of Africa hypothesis was formulated. Only the genetic studies in the second half of the 20th century upset the ‘obvious’ linkages. Gradually scholars came to disconnect the short stature from the overall Australoid and to posit Negritos, clearly on the model of the African Pigmies.

Luca Cavalli-Sforza (HGHG 1994) overturned the equation of Australoids and Negritos by reviewing a number of genetic studies which measured genetic distances among various populations of our vast region. The Negritos of South India (Kadar) and Malaysia turned out to be genetically closest to their neighbors ­whatever their linguistic or cultural classification ­than to Papuans or Australians. However, Peter Underhill, in a more recent study, showed genetic connections between the Andamanese and people from the Kusunda area of Nepal. (Kusunda are often described as fairly short, while many consider the Andamanese as proper Negritos.) So the correct conclusion is that some Negrito are short variants of the general population of their area, while others seem to be Australoids in the basic meaning of that term. We do not know as yet that the Andamanese are proper Australoids either, since we lack, or I know nothing of, them in comparison to the Papuans and Australians. Looking only at photos of Andamanese, I was struck by how nondescript they were, hardly Papuan or Australian at all. A friend, shown the same pictures, described them as “African Polynesians”.So their status as Australoids is not to be assumed without demonstration genetically.According to Norman Zide in his careful review of  all sources on the Andamanese, their linguistic affiliation with Indo-Pacific (hence Papua and Tasmania) is not to be assumed  either.

Finally, what I prefer to call the Southwest Pacific consists of Tasmania, Australia, New Guinea, and a large number of islands east and northeast of New Guinea as far as Fiji, often called the Melanesian islands or simply Melanesia, the ‘black islands’. Oddly enough, this region has older archeological dates than either Southeast Asia (except for Homo erectus sites) or India. Very recent excavations in India have not been published fully but at least one site is said to be 100,000; that would top the SW Pacific dates of 60,000-30,000 in Australia, New Guinea and Melanesia. The customary assumption which practically everyone makes is that bodies, languages, and cultures have flowed constantly from India or south China through Indonesia to the Southwest Pacific. Even beyond the Fijian line to Polynesia and Micronesia; there, however, it can be shown that events did move from west to east but in fairly recent times.

Sundry considerations point to a series of more specific problems different speakers might focus on at the conference. My list here does not exhaust the possibilities but hopes to define the universe.

1. Do Kusunda or Nihali have linguistic kin in India?  Or the Andaman islands?
2. Since castes in India tend towards endogamy and castes behave like tribes or populations, are lower castes more akin to ‘foreigners’ genetically than to their ‘own’ ethnic group; dialect, language or tribe?  If so, which foreigners?
3.  Does the evidence of sub-strata in Indic, Iranian, Dravidian or other languages point to cognations with any outside groups or do they point to some new genetic group or several or some isolates (e.g., Kusunda, Nihali)?
4. Does the controversial phylum called Austric hold together? Is lexical evidence lacking or still lacking? What grammatical evidence might hold it together? Might Austric be related to Nihali or Sino-Tibetan or Indo-Pacific?
5. Is it possible to draw a biological phylogeny or biogenetic family tree of Southeast Asian populations? How about including the peoples of the Southwest Pacific? Or India?
6. Are there archeological sites in greater India or southeast Asia of 50,000 + ?
7. Are there archeological cultures or horizons which appear to correlate with major linguistic group or major races? (Never mind Lapita & Polynesians)
8. Can Indo-Pacific be defended? Where is the hypothesis the weakest? Can Andamanese and Tasmanian be included? Do they have any other kin?
9. Is Tasmanian related to both Australian and Indo-Pacific? Can it not be classified because the data are scarce and imperfect?
10. Can Australian and Papuan (in a narrow sense) be related? Can Indo-Pacific as Greenberg conceived it be related to Australian? Is Australian simply another branch or sub-phylum of Indo-Pacific?
11. Some of the Kusunda, the Andamanese, the Semang of Malaya, the Aeta and others of the Philippines, and some Papuan highlanders have been described as quite short or as Negritos or as Pigmies. Can we choose between the theory that they are the “Australoid remnants” of early settlements and the theory that their diminished size is primarily a product of living for a long time in the tropical rain forests characteristic of much of the India to Fiji region? (Cf Mercader’s book). Or are both theories right? Or both false?

Before tackling the vexing question of Papuan and Australian relations and priorities, suffice it to say that the  two are frequently paired physically with the expectation that they form a race or a segment of mankind something like a race. When geneticists form their family trees, Papuan is usually Australian’s nearest relative and vice versa. But such a pairing is not usual in cultural matters where the great Melanesian realm is apt to be as much like Papuan  and it is quite rare in linguistic studies. Alfredo Trombetti and Morris Swadesh are the exceptions in proposing a genetic relationship in language. And Swadesh only did it once, as I recall. Neither Greenberg nor Wurm ever proposed it, although Greenberg would sometimes say that he thought the two would eventually be related to each other.

(No doubt an intensive search of more than a century’s worth of literature in minimally seven languages would turn up another venturesome fellow.)

[Abbreviated from a letter by Hal Fleming, early Summer 2006]