Simon J. Greenhill
Department of Psychology,
University of Auckland,
Assoc. Prof. Russell D. Gray, University of Auckland.
The idea that languages can tell us about human prehistory has a long pedigree with among others, the poet Emerson noting that languages were the 'archives of history'. Previous work has shown that the use of phylogenetic techniques on languages, can indeed help with inferences about, for example, population dispersals (Gray & Jordan 2000, Holden 2002, Rexová et al. 2003)
I am using two large databases of Austronesian languages to investigate a number of questions about human occupation of the Pacific. The Pacific was settled in two waves, with the first occurring around 56,000 years ago when humans spread through Island South East Asia, New Guinea and Australia. More recently around 6,000 years ago, a second wave known as the Austronesian Expansion replaced the first inhabitants, and expanded throughout the Pacific, eventually reaching New Zealand about 800 years ago. The second wave of settlement brought with it the Austronesian languages. This Austronesian language family is one of the largest in the world, and one of the most widely dispersed, with around 1,000 to 1,200 languages spoken in the area between Madagascar, Taiwan, Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand.
There have been long standing debates within anthropology about how much new methods of agriculture and technology have driven human dispersal throughout the world, and how much mixing ('reticulation') went on between ancient human populations. Phylogenetic analyses of these languages will allow us to investigate these questions by assessing how humans settled the Pacific. In addition, robust phylogenies of the Austronesian languages, will also allow us to investigate the origin of one of the largest language families in the world, and facilitate further research into human cultural evolution both in the Pacific and in general.