Time and Place in the Prehistory of the Aslian Languages


The Aslian language family, located in the Malay Peninsula and southern Thai Isthmus, consists of four distinct branches comprising some 18 languages. These languages predate the now dominant Malay and Thai. The speakers of Aslian languages exhibit some of the highest degree of phylogenetic and societal diversity present in Mainland Southeast Asia today, among them a foraging tradition particularly associated with locally ancient, Pleistocene genetic lineages. Little advance has been made in our understanding of the linguistic prehistory of this region or how such complexity arose. In this article we present a Bayesian phylogeographic analysis of a large sample of Aslian languages. An explicit geographic model of diffusion is combined with a cognate birth-word death model of lexical evolution to infer the location of the major events of Aslian cladogenesis. The resultant phylogenetic trees are calibrated against dates in the historical and archaeological record to infer a detailed picture of Aslian language history, addressing a number of outstanding questions, including (1) whether the root ancestor of Aslian was spoken in the Malay Peninsula, or whether the family had already divided before entry, and (2) the dynamics of the movement of Aslian languages across the peninsula, with a particular focus on its spread to the indigenous foragers.