Why do so few Aussies speak an Australian language?

By Laura Rademaker, Australian National University

Linguistically speaking, Australia is special. With around 250 languages spoken when Australia was first colonised, Australia was one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world.

But few people speak our Indigenous languages. As of 2016, only 10% of Australia’s Indigenous population spoke an Indigenous language at home. Most Indigenous languages are now “asleep”, waiting to be woken up by language revivalists.

Australian languages did not simply fade away; they were actively silenced by governments, schools and missions.

[Read more…]

In hunter-gatherer societies, excellent metabolic health is sustained by very active ways of living and a wide range of diets

The New York Times reports:

Nutrition experts have long debated whether there is an optimal diet that humans evolved to eat. But a study published this month adds a twist. It found that there is likely no single natural diet that is best for human health.

The research, published in the journal Obesity Reviews, looked at the diets, habits and physical activity levels of hundreds of modern hunter-gatherer groups and small-scale societies, whose lifestyles are similar to those of ancient populations. They found that they all exhibit generally excellent metabolic health while consuming a wide range of diets.

Some get up to 80 percent of their calories from carbohydrates. Others eat mostly meat. But there were some broad strokes: Almost all of them eat a mix of meat, fish and plants, consuming foods that are generally packed with nutrients. In general, they eat a lot more fiber than the average American. Most of their carbohydrates come from vegetables and starchy plants with a low glycemic index, meaning they do not lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar. But it is also not uncommon for hunter-gatherers to eat sugar, which they consume primarily in the form of honey.

The findings suggest that there is no one “true” diet for humans, who “can be very healthy on a wide range of diets,” said the lead author of the study, Herman Pontzer, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University. “We know that because we see a wide range of diets in these very healthy populations.”

One thing hunter-gatherer populations have in common is a very high level of physical activity. Many walk between five and 10 miles a day. [Continue reading…]

Brazil’s Amazon rain forest is in the crosshairs, as defenders step up

Andrew Revkin writes:

By now, anyone worried about the fate of the Amazon rain forest or the indigenous and traditional communities depending on this vast, rich ecosystem knows the litany of potentially devastating steps [Brazil’s newly elected far-right president, Jair] Bolsonaro has threatened to take.

He won on a platform mainly built around change and order after the worst string of corruption scandals and economic troubles in Brazil’s modern history.

But he also wooed rural landowners and businessmen, appealing to Brazil’s “beef, Bible, and bullet” political bloc. A big theme for this former military officer was taming and exploiting the country’s vast Amazon expanse. Beneath and within the extraordinary biological bounty of the lacework of rivers and towering forest canopies, enormous mineral and timber and hydropower resources remain unexploited.

Bolsonaro disparaged Brazil’s minorities and indigenous tribes and discounted their land claims, pledged to loosen forest and environmental regulations and enforcement, to open reserves to mining, and to ban international environmental groups. [Continue reading…]

‘First contact’: What a missionary’s death tells us about the perils of colonialism

Ed Simon writes:

Last week, Alabama native John Allen Chau bribed fishermen to take him to the protected Andaman archipelago in the Indian Ocean, where he wished to “establish the kingdom of Jesus on the island.” In a particularly American spin on first-contact narratives, Chau brought a football to the Sentinelese, among the last pre-Neolithic tribes on Earth protected from contact. He was ultimately killed by Sentinelese armed with bows and arrows, an end that raises profound questions about “first contact” moments in history.

For centuries, colonists and conquistadors, missionaries and explorers, have demanded things of native peoples in a language and faith completely foreign to them, almost always with tragic consequences for the natives. Tales of first contact often have certain commonalities: depictions of natives as “noble savages,” lists of trinkets given to the “credulous” aborigines and a condescension that assumes a profoundly foreign people will be conversant with the intricacies of the invading culture.

First contact is the most enduring trope of the discovery narrative of travel writing. For centuries, explorers (or colonizers) have penned their initial interactions with the indigenous people who are always configured as part of the environment more than humans in their own right. The most famous example happened when Columbus arrived among the Caribbean Arawak. In his “Journal of the First Voyage,” Columbus (with his own interest in mind) wrote that the Arawak were “very friendly to us” and he “perceived that they could be … easily converted to our holy faith.” He claimed that the natives were “much delighted, and became wonderfully attached to us.”

But this “translation” of the Arawak language reflects the cultural context and language of Columbus’s own medieval Catholic imagination, not how the Arawak actually saw the Spanish. Columbus described the Caribbean as an unspoiled paradise — an Eden. The English Protestant colonists in what would become the United States deployed similar language, not just comparing the New World to an Eden, but configuring themselves as the new gods of this paradise. In his 1590 “A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia,” Thomas Harriot wrote that the Algonquin who approached the settlers of the Roanoke Colony felt the goods of the English “were rather the works of gods than men.” As with Columbus, we have no sense of what the Algonquin may have actually thought. [Continue reading…]

Wave of violence against Brazil’s indigenous communities follows Bolsonaro’s election

Grist reports:

Even before Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s Presidential race last week, many environmentalists were on high alert. The far-right politician’s positions on agriculture and economic development (he’s gone back and forth on whether he’ll keep environment ministries and agriculture ministries separate) could open up Brazil’s precious rainforests to deforestation and economic exploitation.

But it’s not just the Amazon that’s threatened — the lives of many of Brazil’s indigenous peoples are under siege as well. A little over a week ago, the President-elect signaled he might backtrack on his campaign promise to leave the Paris climate accord, but only if he gets assurances that Brazil would not have to cede sovereignty to native tribes.

“Indigenous peoples suffer disproportionately from violence,” Christian Poirier, program director at Amazon Watch, told Grist. “Under Bolsonaro, we can expect to see a growth in this very alarming trend.”

In the first few days after Bolsonaro’s election, there were reports of a wave of violence against indigenous communities, with pro-Bolsonaro militias allegedly destroying villages and gravely harming individuals. [Continue reading…]

Indigenous people invented the so-called ‘American Dream’

By Lewis Borck, Leiden University and D. Shane Miller, Mississippi State University

When President Barack Obama created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the 2012 program that offered undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as children a path into society, for a moment the ideals of the American Dream seemed, at least for this group, real.

We call these kids, many of whom are now adults, “Dreamers,” because they are chasing the American Dream – a national aspiration for upward economic mobility built on physical mobility. Fulfilling your dreams often means following them wherever they may lead – even into another country.

The Trump administration’s decision to cancel DACA – which is currently on hold while it is litigated in the courts – and build a U.S.-Mexico border wall has endangered those dreams by subjecting 800,000 young people to deportation.

But the notion underlying both Trump’s DACA repeal and the wall – which is that “illegal” immigrants, most of them from Mexico, are stealing U.S. jobs and hurting society – reflects a profound misunderstanding of American history.

On Indigenous Peoples Day, it’s worth underscoring something that many archaeologists know: Many of the values that inspire the American Dream – liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness – date back to well before the creation of the U.S.-Mexico border and before freedom-seeking Pilgrim immigrants arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620.

[Read more…]

How the loss of Native American languages affects our understanding of the natural world

File 20181004 52666 1yv18hf.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Dance is a unique way of passing on cultural stories to a younger generation.
Aaron Hawkins/Flickr.com, CC BY-ND

By Rosalyn R. LaPier, The University of Montana

Alaska has a “linguistic emergency,” according to the Alaskan Gov. Bill Walker. A report warned earlier this year that all of the state’s 20 Native American languages might cease to exist by the end of this century, if the state did not act.

American policies, particularly in the six decades between the 1870s and 1930s, suppressed Native American languages and culture. It was only after years of activism by indigenous leaders that the Native American Languages Act was passed in 1990, which allowed for the preservation and protection of indigenous languages. Nonetheless, many Native American languages have been on the verge of extinction for the past many years.

Languages carry deep cultural knowledge and insights. So, what does the loss of these languages mean in terms of our understanding of the world.

[Read more…]

Bolsonaro has made grim threats to the Amazon and its people

Climate Change News reports:

No more Paris Agreement. No more ministry of environment. A paved highway cutting through the Amazon.

Not only that. Indigenous territories opened to mining. Relaxed environmental law enforcement and licensing. International NGOs, such as Greenpeace and WWF, banned from the country. A strong alliance with the beef lobby.

In a nutshell, this is what Jair Bolsonaro, who is sailing towards Brazil’s presidency after taking a near-majority in a first round vote on Sunday, has promised for the environment.

An enthusiast for torture and the 1964-85 military dictatorship, the retired army captain is famous for racist, homophobic, authoritarian and misogynistic rhetoric. But his views on how to manage Earth’s largest tropical rainforest are just as grim and appalling. [Continue reading…]

Farmers, tourists, and cattle threaten to wipe out some of the world’s last hunter-gatherers

Ann Gibbons writes:

As we hike down a rocky slope, through thorny acacias that snag our clothes and past the emaciated carcass of a cow, we hear people singing. We are approaching a small camp of Hadza hunter-gatherers, and our Tanzanian guide thinks they must be celebrating something.

But as we near a few huts made of branches and draped with mosquito netting, a slender woman in a worn T-shirt and sari totters toward us. “She is drunk,” says Killerai Munka, our guide.

The woman calls her children, and as she puts their small hands inside ours we get a sour whiff of diarrhea. That’s when she tells Munka that her youngest child—a baby boy—died the night before. “He wanted to sleep some more and didn’t wake up,” Munka translates from Swahili.

A couple of pastoralist men, probably members of the local Datoga tribe, are also visiting. They carry wooden staffs, wear brass hoop earrings, and have brought a bottle of homemade alcohol. They have traded that bottle, and likely others, for honey gathered by the Hadza, who by now have had too much to drink.

Times are hard for the Hadza, who include some of the last people on the planet to live as nomadic hunter-gatherers.

Their way of life has been a magnet for researchers for 60 years, and the subject of hundreds of scholarly papers, because it may offer the closest analog to the way our African ancestors lived. The iconic lifestyle persists: Just that morning in another Hadza camp called Sengele, an hour’s walk away, women and children were digging tuberous roots for food. Men were gathering honey by smoking out bees from baobab trees. But that lifestyle is quickly disappearing. [Continue reading…]

The Dreamtime, science and narratives of Indigenous Australia

File 20180501 135803 tkypa4.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Lake Mungo and the surrounding Willandra Lakes of NSW were established around 150,000 years ago.
from www.shutterstock.com

David Lambert, Griffith University

This article is an extract from an essay Owning the science: the power of partnerships in First Things First, the 60th edition of Griffith Review.

We’re publishing it as part of our occasional series Zoom Out, where authors explore key ideas in science and technology in the broader context of society and humanity.


Scientific and Indigenous knowledge systems have often been in conflict. In my view, too much is made of these conflicts; they have a lot in common.

For example, Indigenous knowledge typically takes the form of a narrative, usually a spoken story about how the world came to be. In a similar way, evolutionary theories, which aim to explain why particular characters are adapted to certain functions, also take the form of narratives. Both narratives are mostly focused on “origins”.




Read more:
Friday essay: when did Australia’s human history begin?


From a strictly genetic perspective, progress on origins research in Australia has been particularly slow. Early ancient DNA studies were focused on remains from permafrost conditions in Antarctica and cool temperate environments such as northern Europe, including Greenland.

But Australia is very different. Here, human remains are very old, and many are recovered from very hot environments.

While ancient DNA studies have played an important role in informing understanding of the evolution of our species worldwide, little is known about the levels of ancient genomic variation in Australia’s First Peoples – although some progress has been made in recent years. This includes the landmark recovery of genomic sequences from both contemporary and ancient Aboriginal Australian remains.

[Read more…]