Remote Melanesia: One History or Two? an Addendum to Donohue and Denham

By Blust, Robert | Oceanic Linguistics, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Remote Melanesia: One History or Two? an Addendum to Donohue and Denham


Blust, Robert, Oceanic Linguistics


1. INTRODUCTION. (1) In Blust (2005) I raised what I thought was a long overdue question, namely why is it that most widely accepted models for the settlement of Remote Oceania fail to account in any straightforward way for the attested distribution of human phenotypes, distinctive cultural traits, and certain typological features of language in Vanuatu and "southern Melanesia" (New Caledonia and the Loyalties). As was fully expected, this question has triggered a response from leading Oceanic historical linguists (Pawley 2006, Ross and Naess 2007:460), although to my knowledge no similar response has yet been forthcoming from Pacific archaeologists or population geneticists. The position statement of Donohue and Denham is valuable in showing that I am not alone in feeling that the standard model of Pacific prehistory leaves certain important questions unanswered. (2)

It is well known that all of the languages of Remote Oceania are Austronesian (AN). The only area where disagreement was formerly expressed is the Santa Cruz islands, but Ross and Naess (2007) have shown convincingly that those Santa Cruz languages that some scholars had claimed to be "Papuan" are in fact AN. (3) In essence, the standard model of Neolithic prehistory in the Pacific holds that speakers of Proto-Oceanic/the "Lapita people" appeared suddenly in the Bismarck archipelago around 3350 BP, and within two or three centuries had spread south and east as far as Fiji-Tonga-Samoa. This movement is sometimes stated as though it involved a single, continuous expansion of a uniform population. But if this were true, we would expect the populations of Remote Oceania to share a high degree of physical, cultural, and linguistic similarity. As already noted, this is the case in at least one important respect: all indigenous peoples of this region speak AN languages. However, apart from this connecting thread and certain shared elements of material culture, the native peoples of Remote Melanesia and those of other parts of Remote Oceania differ in many ways. My critique was concerned with three types of discrepancy between language family affiliation and physical, cultural, or linguistic traits in Remote Melanesia: (1) the clear phenotypic differences between most AN-speaking groups of this region and those outside Melanesia, (2) typological traits in the languages of Remote Melanesia that are rare in AN but common in Papuan languages, and (3) cultural traits that are found in many Papuan societies but are rare or absent in the AN world outside Remote Melanesia.

In the interest of brevity I will pass over point (1) quickly except to reiterate that the AN speakers who reached Polynesia, Micronesia, and Rotuma are SM, and they presumably reached their historical locations via the Solomons and Vanuatu, where today virtually all AN speakers are phenotypically PM. In areas where Papuan languages are still spoken (as the Solomons), this can be accounted for by gene flow between indigenous Papuan groups and the incoming Austronesians, but in Remote Melanesia it implies either that there was a Papuan population in place before AN speakers arrived, or that there were two distinct waves of migration associated with the spread of AN languages into Remote Oceania, one of them physically SM and the other PM.

2. SERIAL VERB CONSTRUCTIONS. My second set of observations concerned serial verb constructions and nondecimal counting systems, two features of linguistic typology that are shared by many Papuan languages and the AN languages of Melanesia (including Vanuatu and southern Melanesia), but are rare or weakly developed in other AN languages. Pawley (2006:246-47) takes me to task for both of these, starting with verb serialization:

   There are two problems with the argument concerning serial verb
   constructions (SVCs). First, SVCs are not particularly rare in
   Austronesian languages outside of Oceanic. Certain types of SVCs are
   present in Taiwan, in Western Malayo-Polynesian and Central
   Malayo-Polynesian, and they must be attributed to Proto-Oceanic
   (POC) itself (Ross 2004). … 

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