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  • Indians in Australia, c. 2000 B.C.? May 28, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Prehistoric , trackback

    aborigine and dingo

     ***Beach dedicates this to an old friend of the blog, Wade, presently recuperating in hospital: the New York Changeling needs you, Wade!***

    There is a case to be made for not writing about bizarre history research when it first comes out, but waiting six months for the shouting to die down. In six months new opinions surface and awkward and niggling facts can often do fatal damage to a myriad of brave new worlds before busy bloggers have to deal with them. When Beach, back in January, first heard the stories about DNA proof linking the Indian Sub-Continent with Australia c. 2000 BC he deliberately let it go: what were the chances that this theory would lie down in the elephant graveyard of academic nearly-runs by February? But several months on no one has done fatal damage to the theory. Indeed, the idea of Indian Dravidians arriving in Australia c. 2000 B.C. has become, at least for Beach, the best bizarre history story of 2013, beating Richard III into second place; it has also been almost universally accepted.

    First, the ‘facts’. Scholars, archaeologists and latterly geneticists, have long been interested in the question of what route Aborgines travelled down to get to Australia, c. 50,000 B.C. In part because of this DNA testing was made with one eye on the genetics of groups to the north to see if the Aboriginal genes could be paralleled. Links with India were hinted at in 2002 and then confirmed in 2009. However, as far back as 2002 some unusual data suggested the impossible: namely, that there were later prehistoric links with India. These ‘impossible’ results were politely disregarded at the time. But the 2013 Max Plankt survey, employing, bods might be interested to know, single-nucleotide polymorphisms, confirmed that there had been an influx of Indian DNA into the Aboriginal population about 2000 B.C. Let’s spell this out. Indians had somehow got to Australia 2000 years before Christ. In fact, the Max Plankt study, part of a team including the now world famous Mark Stoneking, established that there was a connection between southern India and Australia. It should also be noted that they have so far only looked at DNA from northern Australia and 347 Aborigines there. About 11% of DNA is Indian apparently: does that mean that 11% of ancestors were Indian? Beach is a bit ignorant on these things.

    Two questions follow from this. First, what effect did this migration have on Aboriginal culture. Here there has been much excitement because c. 2000 B.C. is a period when Aboriginal culture changes rapidly. The dingo arrives at approximately this date, for example. Cooking-style changes: the Australian learn how to safely prepare cycad nuts. Aboriginal languages seem to mutate: with the establishment of one dominant language family. Then, also, stone tools become finer and more efficient.

    Given that the dingo can be compared with Indian dogs; given that cycad nuts were used extensively in India by 2000 BC; given that language change is often related to external stress; and given too that the Indians had more efficient tools back home this looks like a slam dunk. Only, of course, it isn’t. There were likely dogs in Indonesia ‘back in the day’, dogs which could equally be the original dingo. Aborigines could easily have discovered how to treat toxic cycad nuts independently. The dominant Aboriginal language is Aboriginal not Indian, despite some claims for Tamil placenames near Kimberly! Then southern Indians at this date were bang in the middle of the bronze age, so it seems unlikely that they would waste their time perfecting ‘better’ stone tools. Still, there is no question that the study of this period – part of the intensification debate in Australian archaeology – will be shaken up by the Indian hypothesis.  Also the question of the way in which a small, alien population can change a culture is a fascinating one with lots of other applications around the globe.

    Perhaps as interesting is the question of how the hell the Indians got to Australia, c. 2000 BC. Recent archaeological research is turning up fascinating material suggesting the previously unsuspected sophistication of the Indus Valley civilization, whose influence stretched down into the south of the peninsula. Indians at this date had certainly mastered sea-faring and were trading with the Middle East and perhaps the coast of Africa. But Australia… As usual in these cases there are two hypotheses: memories of the Madagascar debate. First, there is the possibility of deliberate colonization: twenty boats packed full of men, women and dingos setting out for a rumoured land. Second, there is the possibility of accidental colonization. Two men, two women and two dingos find themselves on a boat that got (very, very) badly blown off course. The problem is that neither of these are very credible. Perhaps the least offensive solution is that Indian traders had been slowly penetrating the Pacific and diaspora Indians spilled over into Australia about four thousand years ago? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Still, it is curious that bronze-making technology did not, to our knowledge, make it down-under. Not sure how that can be explained, unless we assume accidental colonisation and an absence of smiths.

    Beach should add one small fact from his bizarre files. The Baijini, a mythical people from the mythology of the northern Aborigines were said to have once dwelt in that part of the continent. The Baijini may have been fairies or they may have been gods. Alternatively they may have been an actual historical people, though awkwardly for present purposes they possessed the land before the Aborigines arrived there. For the record, they were said to grow rice and they built stone houses. Joseph Needham, the great Sinologist, who sometimes risked his reputation with ‘unusual’ theories, suggested that they might have been Chinese (another post, another day)!

    On the subject of Australia there is a recent suspect, but brilliant story about early Arab contact with the southern Pacific. We’ll be visiting it in six months time. Beach also remembered this early post of his about north-south contact in the Pacific. Then, if you want something really wild… 

    31 May 2013: Gus writes: It is extremely interesting how such things could have happened. If the contacts were relatively limited and short-lived, the physical archaeological evidence would be so small and localised the likelihood of it ever being found, if it still exists, is incredibly small. So there are only the enduring DNA and cultural/social/language/technological evidence left as indicators. I suspect this overlooked “founder effect” contact situation is much more common than suspected in many populations. On the issue of: “Then southern Indians at this date were bang in the middle of the bronze age, so it seems unlikely that they would waste their time perfecting ‘better’ stone tools. My understanding is that use and even refinement of stone tools continued well on into both the bronze and iron ages in almost all cultures, particularly as metals were such limited and expensive resources, and often the well established and refined stone tool technologies were better at many jobs than the emergent and early metal technologies. River, meanwhile, writes in with this great piece, note that all names changed. ‘The 11% of DNA that is Indian doesn’t necessarily mean “Two men, two women and two dingos find themselves on a boat that got (very, very) badly blown off course”.  One person can have a big impact on a small village. To prove my thesis, when I lived on the island of Roster Alaska, I was married to a man with the last name Larson and my children are Larsons as well. I was a little startled when I brought one daughter to the doctor’s office with an earache and the physician mentioned “native kids” seeming to have a lot of earaches, since I had never mentioned my husband’s family having lower 48 “native American” ancestry. (Also we don’t really look like stereotypical “native Alaskans” but after 200 years of Russian occupation many of the natives don’t either. ) Also we started to get phone calls about working on my ex-husband’s (non-existent) fishing boat. We eventually figured out that there was a man from the native village of Lullat with the same first and last name as my ex-husband. In fact, we were told, Larson was a very common name for native Alaskans on the island. When I got a chance to meet some native Alaskans with the name Larson, someone told me this story, sorry but I can’t recollect my source. Around 1900 a man with the last name Larson moved from Sweden (or some Scandinavian country with similar biome to Alaska) to the largest native village on Roster Island, Old Harbor. He married a native woman and fished commercially. They had a large number of children, definitely numbering in the teens, possibly 19 (?). In the 100 subsequent years they had populated each of the villages on the islands, as people often move around like that for jobs and to marry someone who isn’t a near relative. These stats are really off the top of my head and not to be taken as a census, but most of the Roster villages (there were 12 when I moved away and yes new ones appear and sometimes disappear even in living memory due to things like tsunamis or logging camps) have about 150 people. The main town, which was established by Russians, has over 5000 people. Dozens of the people living in the archipelago are Larsons. I imagine this sort of genetic legacy could get magnified over 2000 years. There are stories of Spanish sailors washed ashore in Ireland after the defeat of the Spanish Armada who are said to have left a genetic legacy in Ireland. Has anyone looked into that? It might give an idea of how long it takes for genes to spread from just a few stranded sailors. And Jim is tongue in cheek: maybe,but the masons were here first of course-  Thanks River, Jim and Gus!