Varikin Findings: How Pama-Nyungan Grandparent Naming Systems Change

The VariKin project has examined the cultural evolution of kinship terminology from a range of perspectives and methods. Considerable research by our group and others has focused on the comparison of cousin and sibling terms, but grandparent terms, the topic of this paper, are largely understudied. The social salience of grandparents, due to their frequent role in the care of grandchildren as well as in controlling wealth and cultural knowledge, suggested that a project of this focus was long overdue.

Catherine Sheard and Fiona Jordan from the VariKin team, along with Claire Bowern and Rikker Dockum (Yale University), addressed this gap in an open access paper published earlier this year in Evolutionary Human Sciences. “Pama–Nyungan grandparent systems change with grandchildren, but not cross-cousin terms or social norms” compares grandparent terms across 134 Australian languages from the Pama-Nyungan family. Using Pama-Nyungan as a study system is less common in studies of kinship macroevolution. Australia’s ecological and anthropological history (namely, a continental radiation of primarily hunter-gatherer languages) provides a contrasting example to language families associated with agricultural spreads, such as Austronesian or Bantu.



A standard way of thinking about grandparental kin terms is to consider each of parent of mother and father: MM, MF, FM, and FF. Pitjantjatjara has a two-term system that merges gender like English does, with ‘kami’ for MM and FM (grandmother), and ‘amu’ for FF and MF (grandfather). Other languages have four separate terms, for example, Alyawarra has ‘arrenge’ FF, ‘artartetye’ MF, ‘anyanye’ MM and ‘aperle’ FM. Pama-Nyungan languages also explore other three-term systems that merge parallel grandparents, so that MM=FF as in Djapu, or merge cross grandparents, so that MF=FM, as in Yagara.

The group used Bayesian phylogenetic comparative methods to model the stages of grandparent naming systems (see Fig 3. below). This analysis suggests that the ancestral, proto-Pama–Nyungan system had four separate terms (on the left of the diagram below). In different groups of languages, this shifted to either a two-term system (merging sexes, like English), or a three-term system merging parallel grandparents (MM=FF), with a potential third stage (merging cross, MF=FM) emerging in some cases from there. Note that some of these transitions seem to have occurred without a stable intermediate state.



As well as making discoveries regarding systems of grandparental terminology, Catherine and colleagues note that we still do not know why it is that these systems transitioned in that particular order. In their paper, the authors tested potential social factors that might drive these transitions (community marriage organisation, and post-marital residence) but found no significant correlations. There was minimal co-evolution with the rest of the terms in the kinship system, and it remains an open question what linguistic or social forces shape grandparent terms.

Upcoming talk: Coevolution in counting and culture

I’m giving a talk tomorrow (Tues 21 Feb) at the University of Bath, for the AI folk in the computer sciences department. My thanks to Joanna Bryson for being adventurous and inviting an anthropologist to speak to CompSci folk!

Counting coconuts for the chief: coevolution in language and culture

Across the world, languages vary in their ways of enumeration. Some languages, but not others, have dedicated linguistic mechanisms for counting certain objects and/or large numbers. Numeral classifiers are words or affixes to nouns that are used for counting certain classes of objects, such as “animate things” or “coconuts”. Specific counting systems go a step further and count specific classes of objects by units greater than one, such as (e.g.) pairs or twenties. Examining Oceanic languages, Bender and Beller have advanced the idea that numeral classifiers and specific counting systems are object-specific, refer to culturally-salient semantic domains, and are often used to enumerate large quantities. Here we test their hypothesis that these linguistic features may have co-evolved with aspects of socioecology, specifically, norms of redistribution such as chiefly tribute that are found in socially stratified societies. We use comparative data across a sample of Austronesian ethnolinguistic groups, lexical phylogenies of these languages as a model of population history, and statistical methods from evolutionary biology to (a) reconstruct the most likely model of history of counting systems and social structure and (b) test for causal co-evolutionary processes. Using phylogenetic approaches not only allows us to control for Galton’s Problem but allows us to test these language-culture coevolutionary hypotheses in a framework that delivers estimates of the processes of cultural change. These results speak to broader issues regarding the flexibility of human numerical cognition, as well as shed light on the specific development of counting systems within the Austronesian cultural context.

Details here.

fishing, voyaging, and personality

Putting together cross-cultural information on the sorts of fishing that men and women did is interesting. Oceanic women were much more involved in fishing than I had realised. The typical pattern is for women to fish along the reef or by line/net in the lagoon. Spear-fishing, deep-sea diving, offshore fishing and other beyond-the-reef activities seem to be the province of men if these sorts of fishing are present.

Bengt Danielsson's "Work and Life on Raroia", a chatty ethnography of a Tuamotu atoll, mentions that torch fishing is not men's work, as on Ifaluk in Micronesia, but the province of both sexes. Called "rama", this is when fish on the outer reef flat are blinded by some form of lantern and then whacked over the head with big knife. Good times.

Discussing the difficulty of comparative studies and their further complications by individual variations within cultures (with respect to acculturation proceses, but the point is wider), Danielsson quotes Spoehr:

Amyone who has been in an outrigger canoe out of sight of land, with a tropical front approaching, knows that it takes a very particular personality type to cope with these conditions. We could very possibly reconstruct the personality type that was a necessary and sufficient condition for the migrations into the Pacific.

This is a neglected point to think upon, possibly because it drives you mad: the influence of individuals and their decision-making on the course of cultural differentiation. But, the Benedictine "culture is personality writ large" aphorism is kinda worth unpacking when thinking about Oceanic voyaging and the disappearance of the horizon. I don't know if there's a personality type that is necessary for long-distance voyaging–possibly more a type that's unsuitable and thus gets left behind–but there are quite likely to be a certain set of values and behaviours that predominate in a voyaging population. And possibly when the population lands and expands, and Boyd-Richersonian types of cultural processes like prestige bias etc are going to be active upon them.

Of course this is all idle speculation. Time for lunch.

PS: Fun interview with David Botstein in PLoS. His approach to the value of teaching is great to hear. 

Gavin Menzies rewriting Polynesian origins, neat!

Via Savage Minds, who have reproduced the article from the Dominion. Gavin Menzies (author of a book called 1421: The Year China Discovered The World–which I have not read) claims all sorts of interesting selective stuff about Chinese exploration of the Pacific (transcript of a speech, here) and most mindbogglingly, that the Maori were not actually Polynesians but result of "Melanesian slaves raping Chinese prostitutes".

Reading the speech linked above it seems clear to me that Menzies is relying heavily on selective-to-the-point-of-distorted interpretations of genetic work. Yes, East Asian lineages appear in Polynesian and South American populations. But this is because they share common East Asian ancestors a good, oh, 6000 years ago, in the case of the Polynesians, and likely twice that for South Americans. Not because they're descended from a Chinese/Japanese "fleet" from 600 years ago.

More from the speech above:

M. Hertzberg and Colleagues found an Asian specific delection of mitochondrial DNA in Polynesians – notably, Niueans, Tongans, Samoans and Maoris. Shinji Harihara and colleagues produce startling pie charts – it appears the Niueans, Tongans, Samoans and Fijians had ancestors from the Shizoka province of Japan. To this day Niueans share close linguistic similarities with Mainland Chinese.

I'd expect this in a second-year anthropological genetics paper (which I would subsequently give a C). The whole point about the 9bp deletion is that it tracks (roughly) the Austronesian expansion, of which all those Polynesian populations were the end result. I can't even begin to stop laughing at "startling pie charts" and hope one day to get a review which praises MY startling pie charts. And Niueans sharing close linguistic similarities with Mainland Chinese (uh, what are we calling Mainland Chinese?)… okay. I would like to see the statistical comparison there that demonstrates more cognates between Niuean and Mandarin than Niuean and Tikopian, or Niuean and Mekeo, or Niuean and freakin' MALAGASY, and then I might listen.

Yup. Might be waiting some time for that.

Back to the Dominion report:

Menzies said his book had been well-received around the world but had drawn hostile criticism in New Zealand — because academics were government servants out to protect their pensions.

"People just don't believe them any more. I think they live in boxes and their whole way of teaching history is fundamentally flawed, from the bottom up."

Well, it is always a big clue when the academic pension is regarded as the carrot by which scores of anthropologists/historians/biologists conspire to fraudulently rewrite history, and a lone voice carries the truth, right?

I am quite tempted to read this book as a bit of rage is sometimes quite healthy, but like Oppenheimer's Eden in the East, I fear it might sit nicely alongside a bit of Graham Hancock.

edited to add: A quick tour of 1421exposed and links therein reveals right-thinking folk have gone ahead and thoroughly demolished this rubbish. Well done, learned peeps. 

Have a more interesting link instead, (beautiful) photos of the Columbian Nukak