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  • Papuan pasts: Cultural, linguistic and biological histories of Papuan-speaking peoples
  • Angela Terrill
Andrew Pawley, Robert Attenborough, Jack Golson, and Robin Hide, eds. 2005. Papuan pasts: Cultural, linguistic and biological histories of Papuan-speaking peoples. PL 572. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, xxiii + 817 pp. ISBN 0-85883-562-2. Aus$135.00, paper.

With more language families than the whole of Africa, and a settlement date of more than 40,000 years, Melanesia is a treasure chest for linguists, archaeologists, geneticists, and others seeking to encounter and explain the massive diversity characteristic of the region. This volume arose out of a conference held at the Australian National University in November 2000. A principal ami of the book is to correct the imbalance [End Page 313] that has existed for most of the twentieth century in favoring research on Austronesian languages and the Lapita archaeological culture at the expense of the Papuan-speaking peoples of the Pacific: "it is probably fair to say that more manpower has been devoted to investigating the archaeology of the last 3500 years in Near Oceania than to the entire preceding 40,000 years" (xiii). The book also aims to strengthen the often weak ties between different disciplines, which have sometimes made it possible for out-ofdate work that is rejected in one discipline to be cited by scholars in other disciplines as though it were current.

The book consists of 28 chapters, divided into four sections: six linguistics papers (with an introduction by Andrew Pawley); seven archaeology papers (with an introduction by Jack Golson); five environment papers (with an introduction by Robin Hide); and six human biology papers (with an introduction by Robert Attenborough). Authors of the contributions were asked to consider three claims: 1. that the Trans-New Guinea phylum (a proposed genetic grouping with about 400 members) can be taken as given; 2. that the linguistic diversity of northwest and central-north New Guinea-still an area of extreme diversity—may have been even greater prior to the arrival of Trans New Guinea (TNG) languages; and 3. that the Papuan languages of island Melanesia (the Bismarcks and the Solomon Islands) are only distantly related to one another, if at all, and show no clear evidence of relationship with the Papuan languages of New Guinea.

Each section begins with an interpretive essay that highlights the main findings and draws links between papers within and outside that section. These essays are important—in an interdisciplinary volume such as this—as an aid to understanding the background, aims, assumptions, and achievements of each discipline.

I. Linguistics.

Andrew Pawley's introduction sets the stage for the linguistic contributions, describing the history of ideas on Papuan languages, including false starts such as Greenberg's and Wurm's classifications, and outlining the only generally acceptable method for classifying languages, the Comparative Method.

Major concerns common to all the linguistics papers include the role of diffusion versus bifurcation in language development over time. Some of the studies address directly the question of what features can diffuse versus those that are more likely to be retained through inheritance. The Papuan languages have long been the scene for big-picture claims, but while the major advances have resulted from top-down comparison, more recent caution is tending toward a much more fine-grained and bottom-up approach. Data in the form of grammatical descriptions are building up slowly. In addition, with the increasing use of quantitative methods, such as statistical methods used by Malcolm Ross in evaluating chance similarities in pronoun paradigms and radical approaches like Dunn et al. (2005), we are in a better position than ever before to understand the nature of the relationships between the Papuan languages. Ross has a brief discussion of the use of Bayesian statistics, more as a promissory note than a feature of his analysis, but quantitative methods are becoming more widespread, and since this book was published, Bayesian and other statistical methods are increasingly being used in questions of historical linguistics.

Malcolm Ross's paper "Pronouns as a preliminary diagnostic for grouping Papuan languages" is an ambitious attempt to classify New Guinea languages based on their pronoun paradigms. The paper classifies Papuan languages...


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