Another fascinating post by Mark Liberman at the indispensable Language Log, linking to an article published today in Science, “Language Phylogenies Reveal Expansion Pulses and Pauses in Pacific Settlement,” by R. D. Gray, A. J. Drummond, and S. J. Greenhill. The abstract:
Debates about human prehistory often center on the role that population expansions play in shaping biological and cultural diversity. Hypotheses on the origin of the Austronesian settlers of the Pacific are divided between a recent “pulse-pause” expansion from Taiwan and an older “slow-boat” diffusion from Wallacea. We used lexical data and Bayesian phylogenetic methods to construct a phylogeny of 400 languages. In agreement with the pulse-pause scenario, the language trees place the Austronesian origin in Taiwan approximately 5230 years ago and reveal a series of settlement pauses and expansion pulses linked to technological and social innovations. These results are robust to assumptions about the rooting and calibration of the trees and demonstrate the combined power of linguistic scholarship, database technologies, and computational phylogenetic methods for resolving questions about human prehistory.
I’m glad they came down on the side of Taiwanese origin, because that’s how I’ve always understood it, and it would have been a painful effort to dislodge the idea. Mark adds “An unusually clear explanation of the project, along with a great deal of background information, is available on the web here,” describes some earlier work, and invites comment, as of course do I (I hope the recent spate of Russian-related posts hasn’t driven off the Austronesianists!).