The Enigma of the Australian Pygmies

This photograph of two small indigenous men accompanied by two men of more normal Aboriginal stature was taken at Mona Mona Mission, near Kuranda, North Queensland, in 1957. The identity and tribal connections of the men were not recorded. (Original print held by Keith Windschuttle.)

For reasons he did not explain, Peter McAllister declined to reproduce any photographs like this in Pygmonia. Nor did he provide any DNA evidence from Australia that might indicate the genetic background of the subjects of his book.

Pygmonia: In Search of the Secret Land of the Pygmies, by Peter McAllister; University of Queensland Press, 2010, 272 pages, $34.95.

Why don’t more scientific writers write like Peter McAllister, author of Pygmonia? Coming across an article by the current editor of this journal (“The Extinction of the Australian Pygmies”, Quadrant, June 2002), McAllister, a paleo-anthropologist and archaeologist, was amazed to learn about the pygmy population of the rainforest around Cairns, and set out on an intellectual journey to find them and their place in the world. On the way he leads us through a brilliant synopsis of Greek and Egyptian thinking about pygmies, has us eavesdrop on Henry Stanley, who makes the first modern contact with the African pygmies, and introduces the French naturalist de Quatrefages, who proposes that there is an original population of pygmies throughout the world who have been replaced by subsequent invaders. The treatment throughout is reminiscent of Darwin in that it is intellectually elegant, thorough and eminently readable.

McAllister describes the modern pygmy populations of Africa, the Andaman Islanders, the Negritos of the Philippines (Why do we seem to always say that negrito is Spanish for little negro and all the baggage that this implies, when it’s Spanish for “small black person”?), the Orang Asli of Malaysia, the New Guinea pygmies and the pygmies of the Amazon. He concludes that there are fundamental differences between the African pygmies and the pygmy populations of the rest of the world, which is hardly surprising if we accept the “out of Africa” hypothesis, which divides the world genetically between African populations and the rest of the world. He points out that African pygmies have a genetic make-up which restricts human growth hormone and keeps them under 1.5 metres in average height, whatever the environment. He points out that this genetic feature is absent in “out of Africa” pygmy populations, and that their small stature may be due to environmental factors. The question of whether these pygmy groups are remnants of an original substratum he leaves open, but he leaves us with tantalising snippets of cultural and linguistic features which just might be relicts of an underlying culture.

Then, at the end, we come back to Yarrabah, south of Cairns, home of the descendants of the Australian pygmies. And there I fear I felt rather dumped. McAllister gives us ample evidence of the existence of a group of significantly small people living round Cairns seventy years ago. But then he starts to waffle. The work of Birdsell, who did some of the most detailed ethnographic work in Australia and who first proposed a theory of three immigration waves in Australia, is damned with very faint praise. It remains unclear as to whether there still remain people in the area who have the physical characteristics of the people of seventy years ago, and if not, why not. The real issue seems to be that in the modern world it doesn’t make a lot of sense to talk about these issues unless we can make reference to DNA studies, particularly mitochondrial studies, and this work doesn’t seem to have been done. In North Queensland in particular, some attention at least should be paid to DNA studies of New Guinea populations. This is for two reasons: first, the proximity of Cairns to New Guinea and its pygmy populations; and second because the landmasses of Australia and New Guinea were until quite recently part of the Sahul continent. comprising Australia, New Guinea, Tasmania and islands of the Arafura Sea.

So what do we know about the genetics of Sahul populations? The first thing is to remark on how little work has been done.

Ingman and Gyllensten’s study suggested that the mitochondrial genetic diversity of Aborigines was high, similar to that found in Asia. They supported the notion of multiple waves of migration. A study of Y-chromosome variation by Vandenburg and others in 1999 revealed two haplotypes unique to Australian Aborigines. Most (78 per cent) of Aboriginal haplotypes fell into two clusters, possibly indicating two original, separate lineages of founding Aboriginal Australians.

Stoneking and Wilson in studies of Aboriginal mitochondrial DNA found that there was no “obvious phylogenetic association between Australia and New Guinea”. Obviously this excludes the fact that both lines are “out of Africa” and both have common ancestors in deep time, probably in South-East Asia. But they have been separate for many millennia.

This is remarkable, and the lack of comment with which this is received can only be attributed to a blinkered view of Australia’s place in prehistory. Until very recently Australia was part of the Sahul continent. Torres Strait even today averages only twelve to twenty metres deep and was the last land bridge to disappear between Australia and New Guinea. This happened only 7000 years ago and even today Torres Strait does not present serious obstacles to navigation in quite small craft between Australia and New Guinea. It would therefore be surprising to find that there was no evidence of significant New Guinea genes in the Australian population. And yet it appears that there is none.

Linguistics can make some interesting suggestions in this area. New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse place in the world. It is home to 1000 of the world’s 6000 languages. It has 700 different language families. The law enunciated by the linguist Edward Sapir states that the closer we get to the point of diffusion of a language group, the greater the linguistic diversity. The New Guinea linguistic situation, therefore, is consistent with deep antiquity, possibly with the 40,000 years that New Guinea has been settled by man. I should also add that the prehistoric New Guinea culture was sophisticated. New Guinea is one of the earliest places on earth where agriculture independently arose. The banana, sugarcane, sago, taro and pandanus were all first domesticated in New Guinea.

A brief word on the banana. The first evidence that we have of cultivation of bananas is from Kuk Swamp in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, approximately 10,000 years BC. The main ancestor of modern bananas, the one cultivated in Kuk Swamp, is the species Musa acuminate banksii, native to New Guinea, Cape York and islands of the Arafura Sea. In its uncultivated form it can be propagated by the large seeds inside the fruit. But in later cultivars it is triploid and sterile and must be propagated by cuttings and runners. This means that it must be spread by human hand. In this form it rapidly reached Asia and Africa as early as 5000 years ago. The New Guinean proto word for banana, muku, is widely attested in eastern Indonesia. This suggests that some work on an ancient Papuan culture area might bear fruit.

Australia, by contrast, is remarkable for its lack of linguistic diversity. Eighty per cent of the continent belongs to one language group, the Pama-Nyungan group. The remaining 20 per cent is made up of up to twenty language groups (experts disagree on classification), all clustered round the Kimberley and the Top End. This is much less diverse than North America which (with the appropriate nod to the current disputes on this subject), many experts claim has only been occupied by humans for 10,000 years.

If we apply Sapir’s principles to this situation, it is still suggestive of great antiquity but not to anything like the depth of New Guinea. It also suggests clearly that the languages of Australia diffused from a point in the north-west of the continent. Glottochronology is a very imprecise “science” but a time depth of more than 10,000 years for the beginning of the spread of this group of languages is not impossible.

Note that this does not say anything about the genetic origins of the Australian population. Language and genetic origin are rarely coterminous. Eleven per cent of the English-speaking population of the United States are the descendants of African slaves and only 30 per cent of the populations of Turkey and Hungary carry the genes of their respective Turk and Magyar conquerors. Nor does it have any relevance to land claims. Aboriginal people with cultures deriving from extremely ancient cultures have been in Australia for millennia. But it does suggest that there have been some major events in prehistory which have probably resulted in the extinction of very old New Guinea-related genes in the Australian mainland, and the spread of the dominance of a single language/culture group in relatively recent times.

The role of the Tasmanians in all of this remains unclear until such time as proper mitochondrial DNA studies are done comparing Tasmanian, Australian and New Guinean populations. Why such work has not already been done remains a moot point. The tiny size of the samples for the Aboriginal studies which have so far been carried out should also be a matter for concern for genuine scientists.

Before I leave language, let me comment on one interesting point which seems to have eluded McAllister. In the 1960s, the American linguist Joseph Greenberg, influenced by the ground-breaking diachronic linguistic work which had been going on unnoticed in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, proposed a super language family called Indo-Pacific, comprising the languages of New Guinea and non-Austronesian Melanesia, Tasmania and the Andaman Islands. Most serious linguists convey this theory to the realm of fantasy to which it rightly belongs, citing sloppy and improperly based work. Greenberg’s addition of Tasmanian to the group appears to have hinged on the Tasmanian word for “two”, although a quick check of the only reliable source, Plomley’s Tasmanian word list, reveals that there are several words which might mean two, all taken from a series of extremely unreliable informants.

However, at roughly the same time that Greenberg was dreaming his pipe dreams, a serious linguist, Stephen Wurm, was proposing another super family, the Trans New Guinea phylum. During his work, Wurm remarked upon the striking lexical similarities between the West New Guinea languages and Great Andaman. He believed that this similarity was not due to a direct relationship, but to a linguistic substratum. In other words, in deep antiquity there had been a population in West New Guinea speaking a language related to Great Andaman. They had abandoned that language in favour of a Papuan language but kept various Andaman words in their speech. In terms of the original thesis of an original “pygmy” population which had been replaced, this is probably as interesting as any point which McAllister raises in his book.

The other thought which hits us hard in the face on reading this book is how much even the most sophisticated of our prehistorical thinkers (not, I hasten to add, McAllister) are influenced by Darwinistic thinking about prehistory. Old-style racist thinking has had a beating but it is hardly dead. Scratch the surface and you can see some unstated assumptions: history is the story of progression towards the light, presumably whatever orthodoxy rules at the present; there are advanced societies and primitive societies and the primitive societies are not capable of doing the things that advanced societies are; technology advances, never retreats.

My problem with this is that, from what we can see, humanity and its capabilities haven’t changed much in the 100,000-odd years of Homo sapiens. If I can do it, it’s a fair bet that my 500-generation ancestor could do it given the chance. Ancient people moved around much more than we ever thought and they diffused cultures. This doesn’t mean that isolated cultures which have missed out on certain technologies are intrinsically primitive and incapable of adopting them. The dog had been absent from Tasmania before the arrival of the first white settlers. As soon as the Tasmanians found out how much easier dogs made the job of hunting, they adopted dogs in a matter of months. The Negritos of the Philippines farm rice. I know. I’ve visited their farms.

To my mind, the area where this is most relevant is the existence or non-existence of sophisticated navigation in deep prehistory. They walked round the coastline? They floated across hundreds of miles of ocean on logs? Give me a break! There is ample evidence of long ocean trade in volcanic glass in the New Guinea region at a depth of more than 10,000 years. Assuming that our ancestors of even deeper antiquity were capable of sophisticated navigation solves many of the problems of prehistory. The problem is, given the evanescence of wooden boats and the certainty that the ports of 10,000 BC are all under water now, we can only speculate. But technologies disappear as well as appear and there is reason to speculate that very ancient navigation may have been one of them. If you think our ancestors looked like apes, wore skins and had matted hair, check out the earliest prehistoric statues of up to 25,000 years ago. The women had all just returned from a visit to the beauty salon.

So if you’re at all interested in the spread of mankind out of Africa and in the prehistory of the peopling of this continent, read this book. It will reward you amply. But don’t leave it at that. Ask the linguistic questions. Debate the relationship between the populations of Australia and New Guinea. And particularly ask why more work isn’t being done on DNA in this area. These questions are too interesting to become mired in politics.

Ted Rule is a semi-retired investment banker and sinologist who lives in Shenzhen, China. He maintains an interest in linguistics and its relationship to prehistory.


Aboriginal encampment in rainforest behind Cairns, 1890. This is the photograph found by Norman Tindale in 1938, which sent him and Joseph Birdsell in search of the people depicted. Tindale identified the location by the wild banana leaves on the roof of the hut.

Joseph Birdsell, height 186 centimetres (six feet one inch) with twenty-four-year-old man of the Kongkandji tribe, height 140 centimetres (four feet six inches). Photograph taken at Mona Mona Mission, near Kuranda, North Queensland, in 1938.

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