Tracing change in family and social organization in Indigenous Australia, using evidence from language.
The prime aims of this project are to trace the changes in kinship and social organisation in Aboriginal Australia from colonisation by the British to the present, and to reconstruct developments over the last several thousand years leading towards the forms found in the recent period. It will do this by combining the methods and research results of socio-cultural anthropology and linguistics. The project is timely from the perspective of linguistics because of the broader and deeper vocabularies now available, and the recently developed certainties about the earlier form and internal classification of the Pama-Nyungan (PN) language family, which covers the great majority of Australia except for the central far North and is the main focus for the project. The project is timely from the perspective of anthropology because of a recent international resurgence in kinship studies and hypotheses about the transformations of social systems, to which Australia can make a significant contribution. Further aims include
1. advancing understanding of the dynamics of kinship systems—how they evolve and are transformed from one type to another;
2. reconstructing a significant portion of the vocabulary of earlier linguistic stages of the PN languages, thus solving problems in the linguistic prehistory of Australia
3. building an extensive on-line database of kinship terminologies and usages for displaying geographical distributions of features and for analysis of the data and its historical implications. This will serve as a resource for the social sciences as well as for Indigenous people seeking an understanding of their heritage
The research team brings together leading social anthropologists, historical linguists and kinship experts of Indigenous Australia, together with Indigenous researchers.
Background in Australian Indigenous Studies and Linguistics
The Australian Aboriginal people developed highly complex forms of kinship and social organisation, and elaborate related linguistic forms, some unique to this continent (see Heath 1982, Keen 1988, Evans 2003b for reviews of research). While archaeology can tell us something of economic activities, in Australia the evidence is very limited, usually to stone tools. Evidence from languages spoken today and recorded in the recent past can provide a richer view of past societies, especially when allied to comparative anthropology. Unlike on other continents, the methods of linguistic prehistory have been little used in Australia (but see McConvell & Evans eds. 1997 for initial research). This project breaks new ground in proposing intensive research on an important area using this approach.
Large amounts of data have been gathered about Australian Indigenous languages particularly in the last 30 years, which can shed light on the history of Australia in the last 10,000 years. Systematic reconstruction of ancient languages and their terminologies, using the robust ‘comparative method’ in linguistics, has progressed significantly in the last five years (e.g. Bowern & Koch 2004, a volume edited by a CI and RA, including work by SRAs McConvell and Alpher). For the anthropological component, CI Keen has provided a framework for understanding the variations of social and family systems, and their relationships with economy and ecology, across Australia, with examples from seven societies (Keen 2003). This lays the groundwork for our project, which adds more to the sample, and extends it further into the past with the aid of linguistic evidence.
Based on this evidence, the project will begin to build a new dynamic social history of Australia, in the recent and the distant past, providing a foundation for further interdisciplinary research. Because Australia is the only continent peopled early in the spread of humans which did not undergo a ‘neolithic revolution’, this study will provide the missing case, in Pama-Nyungan, of widespread language expansion, not by farmers but by hunter-gatherers (cf. Bellwood 2004 on farmer-led expansion; for hunter-gatherers, McConvell & Evans 1997; Evans & McConvell 1998; McConvell 2001a & b; McConvell 2006 and forthcoming; Gueldemann, McConvell and Rhodes eds. forthcoming).
The project will also be testing the efficacy of the comparative method in linguistics, and the validity of the Pama-Nyungan family of languages. The relevance of the method to Australia and the existence of the PN family have been contested by Dixon (2002) in advancing his ‘punctuated equilibrium’ conjecture. For critiques of Dixon, see Bowen & Koch eds (2004) and articles in that volume, Campbell (2004), Alpher (2005), Evans (2005), Bowern (2006). This question of Pama-Nyungan is at the heart of an international debate, and the proposed research team is well equipped to make a major contribution.
Background in Socio-cultural Anthropology
Australian Aboriginal family and social organisation has been a focus of enquiry in the social sciences world-wide from the nineteenth century on, with leading theories drawing heavily on Australia. Serious work on Australian kinship continued through the 1970’s-90’s, including broad surveys and frameworks for analysis (e.g. Scheffler 1978, Testart 1996), but in an increasing climate of academic indifference towards both kinship and Australian Aboriginal social organisation. Paradoxically, this neglect came just as we began to have far more data and expertise on the issues, such as on Aboriginal languages. In the same period Australia has been experiencing hundreds of land rights and native title claims, which rely on understanding of traditional kinship and social organisation, and change within them, and through the applied anthropological work done on such claims, have contributed to our understanding of them (Sutton 2003). We hope to fill in some measure this gap in continent-wide analysis of this wealth of fragmented information, and thereby contribute to practical issues like native title and land management (cf. Alpher 2002, McConvell 2002, 2004).
The project also engages with current debates in anthropology internationally about the evolution of kinship systems. Some authors believe that the Dravidian/Kariera system of cross-cousin marriage and related kinship is a very early human system and others have developed away from this (Allen 1986; Hage 2001). Being a continent with actual “Kariera’ systems and (uniquely) quadripartite section systems related to them, Australia is a prime potential testing ground for such hypotheses, not yet used. Initial work has been done, by members of this research team, looking in some detail at the transition between the Kariera systems of N. Queensland and the ‘Karadjeri’ (asymmetrical) system of the Yolngu in N-E Arnhem Land (McConvell and Alpher 2002; McConvell and Keen 2006, forthcoming).
Work on kinship evolution is part of a more general resurgence of interest in kinship in just the last decade. Kinship is a subject central to anthropology, but in the last 30 years has been neglected. Nevertheless kinship remains central to the lives of Australian Aborigines even today, as pointed out by McKnight (2004 Appendix: 229-236). Knowledge of Australian Aboriginal kinship and social organisation in the social sciences had all but disappeared worldwide (McKnight in the same Appendix), and this project represents a chance to demonstrate its relevance to many current issues. McConvell, Dousset and Powell (2002) have argued that the structuralist tradition (Levi-Strauss 1949 and many other works) has value and can be combined with more recent emphasis on human agency and choice. McConvell, Dousset and Powell eds. (2002) explored flexibility and layered systems in Australia, and social change, in contemporary situations and prehistory (cf. ‘the interplay of multiple cultural logics’ in Australian kinship – Denham & White 2002, 2005).
Connecting linguistics and anthropology
Internationally a body of new research on ‘kinship transformations’ is emerging (e.g. Godelier, Trautmann & Tjon Sie Fat 1998), building on the structuralist traditions, but this work often fails to offer specific hypotheses about actual diachronic change events. It has also notably omitted discussion of either Australia or linguistic contributions, which can be so crucial to the debates in this field. Godelier’s recent book on the ‘metamorphoses of kinship’, however, has returned to Australia as a key source of evidence, and prominently and favourably cites the work of PI Dousset and SRA McConvell on a number of issues, including the value of linguistic work (Godelier 2004). Godelier and others are reviving interest in kinship in the social sciences (Barnes 2006) and, in this context, support for research on Australian indigenous kinship would be timely.
Our project, like the work of Hage and colleagues for other continents, is aimed at redressing the failure of ‘kinship transformation’ studies in anthropology to connect with the extensive and robust work in linguistics on change in society and culture, including kinship systems. This latter tradition is well represented by the scholars at ANU led by Prof. Andrew Pawley, an associate on this project. Our team will collaborate with the Pacific scholars during the culmination of their work on social organisation reconstruction.