An Ancient Australian Connection to India?
When was the remote Australian continent first settled? Where did these ancient Australians come from? Was the island settled once, or on multiple occasions? Is there a genealogical connection between the Indigenous people of Australia and India?
These are questions I’ve spent almost two decades cogitating, and some of them have been pondered now for almost 400 years by European scholars.
Way back in 1623, while on route through the Torres Strait, the Dutch explorer Jan Carstenz (or Carstenszoon) was the first to write about these issues in describing the physical appearance of Indigenous Australians.
He likened people in the north of the continent to so-called ‘Indians’ of the Coramandel of New Zealand, or Maori people of the North Island.
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Men from Bathurst Island, 1939. ( Public Domain )
The descriptor ‘Indian’ was used widely in those days to refer to populations across the New World, and didn’t imply any genealogical relationship with South Asians as such; that connection would be made by Thomas Henry Huxley more than two centuries later.
Huxley was by far the most influential early European thinker about human origins. Champion of Darwin’s theory of evolution, as a young man Huxley visited Australia on the HMS Rattlesnake in 1847, 11 years after Darwin came here on the HMS Beagle.
While he showed little interest in anthropology at the time, he would subsequently go on to found human evolution science and strongly shape Darwin’s ideas about our origins.
In 1870, in On the Geographical Distribution of the Chief Modifications of Mankind , Huxley proposed that Indigenous Australians were closely related to the people of South Asia, confidently asserting:
‘the only people out of Australia who present the chief characteristics of the Australians in a well-marked form are the so-called hill-tribes who inhabit the interior of the Dekhan, in Hindostan.’
Photograph of two men and two women of the Malaiyali tribe in the Shevaroy Hills in Tamil Nadu - 1860s. ( Public Domain )
While based on speculation, rather remarkably, I think, his ideas would come to be influential up until the 1970s; only to be rekindled by geneticists in 1999.
One physical anthropologist who was especially infleunced by Huxley’s musing was Joseph Birdsell . He worked in Australia from the 1940s, writing about the continent’s Indigenous people until his death in the 1990s.
Birdsell developed a model for the peopling of Australia proposing settlement in three waves; with people coming from Southeast Asia, followed by more people from Japan, and later from India; modern Indigenous people being a kind of mix of the three groups.
Putative migration waves out of Africa and location of some of the most relevant ancient human remains and archeological sites. The placement of arrows is indicative. (Saioa López, Lucy van Dorp and Garrett Hellenthal/ CC BY 3.0 )
His model has been long discredited among anthropologists because it finds no support in fossilised human remains - the only physical evidence we have for the earliest people in Australia.
Moreover, his intellectual contemporary and rival, Andrew Abbie , failed to confirm Birdsell’s ideas during the extensive anthropological surveys he undertook with living Indigenous people across the continent.
Enter the geneticists Alan Redd and Mark Stoneking who in 1999 took a leaf out of Huxley’s writing and published evidence for a maternal genetic connection between Australia and India.
To bolster their ideas, they linked their findings to events seen in the archaeological record, especially the arrival of the dingo, as well as perceived language similarities and even Birdsell’s ideas about migration.
An Australian Dingo, Canis lupus dingo, taken at a wildlife sanctuary/rescue center in South-eastern Australia. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Redd and Stoneking suggested that people from India arrived in northern Australia sometime around three and a half thousand years ago and left a major genetic and cultural legacy with the Indigenous people of the Northern Territory today.
Their work deeply divided both the anthropological and genetic communities, opening old wounds and reviving discredited theories.
Some archaeologists had argued in the 1970s and 1980s that there was indeed a sudden change in the kinds of tools being made in northern Australia - known as the ‘Small Tool Tradition’ or ‘Backed Blades’ - broadly coincident with the arrival of the dog, and indicating the arrival of a new people.