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The origin and expansion of Pama–Nyungan languages across Australia

Nature Ecology & Evolutionvolume 2pages741749 (2018) | Download Citation


It remains a mystery how Pama–Nyungan, the world’s largest hunter-gatherer language family, came to dominate the Australian continent. Some argue that social or technological advantages allowed rapid language replacement from the Gulf Plains region during the mid-Holocene. Others have proposed expansions from refugia linked to climatic changes after the last ice age or, more controversially, during the initial colonization of Australia. Here, we combine basic vocabulary data from 306 Pama–Nyungan languages with Bayesian phylogeographic methods to explicitly model the expansion of the family across Australia and test between these origin scenarios. We find strong and robust support for a Pama–Nyungan origin in the Gulf Plains region during the mid-Holocene, implying rapid replacement of non-Pama–Nyungan languages. Concomitant changes in the archaeological record, together with a lack of strong genetic evidence for Holocene population expansion, suggests that Pama–Nyungan languages were carried as part of an expanding package of cultural innovations that probably facilitated the absorption and assimilation of existing hunter-gatherer groups.

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We thank P. Hiscock, D. Kühnert, M. Smith, M. Stoneking, P. Veth and A. Williams for helpful advice. R.R.B. and Q.D.A. were supported by a Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden grant (UOA1308). Q.D.A. was supported by a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship (RDF-UOA1101). C.B. is supported by National Science Foundation grants BCS-0844550 and BCS-1423711.

Author information


  1. Center of Computational Evolution, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand

    • Remco R. Bouckaert
  2. Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany

    • Remco R. Bouckaert
    •  & Quentin D. Atkinson
  3. Department of Linguistics, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA

    • Claire Bowern
  4. School of Psychology, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand

    • Quentin D. Atkinson


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C.B. and Q.D.A. conceived the study. C.B. collected and prepared the data. R.R.B. designed and performed the analyses and prepared the figures and Methods, with input from Q.D.A. and C.B. Q.D.A. wrote the main text with extensive input from C.B. and R.R.B.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Quentin D. Atkinson.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–6, Supplementary Tables 1–8, Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Notes 1–2, Supplementary References

  2. Life Sciences Reporting Summary

  3. Supplementary Data File 1

    BEAST 2 ( XML file containing the cognate presence/absence data, model parameterization and priors for our main analysis

  4. Supplementary Data File 2

    Annotated maximum clade credibility tree for the main analysis (from Figure 2 and Supplementary Figure 4) in the nexus format

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