Feature

Solving Australia's language puzzle

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Science  23 Sep 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6306, pp. 1357-1359
DOI: 10.1126/science.353.6306.1357

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Summary

According to Aboriginal myth, the first person to come to Australia was a woman named Warramurrungunji. She emerged from the sea and then headed inland, where she created children and put each one in a specific place on the landscape, giving each a specific language as she did so. That myth describes the complexities of Australia's linguistic landscape, which linguists have long struggled to unravel. In recent years they have begun to borrow methods used in biology to derive evolutionary trees to tease apart the history of language. This week the approach takes a major step forward with a combined genetic and linguistic study that paints a picture of how people entered and spread across Australia, giving birth to new languages as they went. It's a modern version of Warramurrungunji's story, and marks a milestone in collaboration between geneticists and linguists, offering a detailed vision of Australia's prehistory.