Scientific Background

Archaeological research in Indonesia has been largely determined by the aim to trace the Austronesian dispersal through the archipelago, with a focus on the western islands Borneo, Sulawesi and Java (Mahirta 2006); as yet, no archaeological data on the Lamaholot-Pantar-Alor (LPA) region is available (fn. 1). What evidence we have relates to large islands such as Flores and Timor, and suggests that these were settled by Austronesians prior to smaller and more isolated islands (such as Pantar and Alor). Archaeological and anthropological studies in East Timor (O’Connor 2003, 2007, McWilliam 2004) show that the chronology of Papuan and Austronesian influence can differ per location, and that presently Papuan-speaking populations may have been originally Austronesian. Similarly, Austronesian languages may have been adopted by originally Papuan populations. Whether such shifts have occurred in the region is one of the issues we address.


Human genetic studies support a connection between populations of the Lesser Sundas with Papuan populations of New Guinea and Austronesians from Asia (Lansing et al. 2011, Xu et al. 2012). The Papuan (or “Melanesian”)-Asian admixture is estimated to have begun about 5,000 years BP in the western part of eastern Indonesia, decreasing to 3,000 years BP in the eastern part. This associates the admixture with Austronesian expansion (Xu et al. 2012). Debate is ongoing on the importance and details of Austronesian expansion in Island South East Asia, but consensus exists that eastern Indonesia shows a “complex migration history” (Lansing et al. 2011: 263), with a “complex range of signals” (Donohue and Denham 2010: 225). For the LPA contact zone, we hypothesise that interactions have been ongoing in multiple directions and time depths, across Papuan and Austronesian groups as well as among them. Hence, correlations between language and human genes are not the type of evidence we would initially seek to reconstruct the history of particular groups.


To date, most of the written historical records refer to the large islands of Flores and Timor, and to contacts between groups on these islands and the coastal, Austronesian, populations of Pantar and Alor (Barnes 1996, De Roever 2002, Steenbrink 2003, Hägerdal 2010a,b, 2011, 2012, and references). Few if any records exist on the history of the Papuan groups of Alor and Pantar. One of the earliest is a Portuguese missionary text written after 1642, where Pantar (referred to as “Galiyao”) is mentioned together with Lewotolok and Kedang on Lembata as a place inhabited by pagans and Muslims. Alor (referred to as “Malua”) is described as an unattractive place, with few opportunities for trade and a heathen cannibal population (Hägerdal 2012:101). The Pantar people referred to appear to be ancestors of today’s speakers of the Austronesian language Alorese (Klamer 2011, 2012). While Dutch VOC ships rarely ventured to Pantar and Alor, Portuguese traders bought local products in exchange for iron, cutlasses, and axes. In the early 18th century, Portugal attempted to establish a base on Alor, but Portuguese colonial control of Alor and Pantar remained remote, and Dutch colonial influence on the islands only became apparent in the first decades of the 20th century (Hägerdal 2010, Klamer 2010:14). In sum, written records on traffic between the coasts of Pantar, Alor and the Lamaholot-speaking area mostly refer to coastal populations speaking Austronesian Alorese (closely related to Lamaholot). A few Papuan groups in the highlands of Pantar and Alor feature in ethnographic works (Le Roux 1929, Nicholspeyer 1940, Du Bois 1944), but not in the historical records.


The Papuan linguistic evidence suggests that the speakers of today’s Papuan languages of Alor and Pantar are descendants of a single group (Holton et al. 2012), which spread over the two islands several millennia ago. Since then, numerous admixtures and migrations must have occurred along a range of cultural and regional networks. Until recently, the Alor-Pantar (AP) family was assumed to be a sub-branch of the Trans New Guinea family (Ross 2005), but lexical evidence for the connection is lacking. From a Papuan perspective, this is unsurprising. Unlike Austronesian languages, Papuan languages have extremely diverse lexicons, which hampers classic comparative reconstruction. We can use the lexicon to group individual Papuan languages together into a low-level family such as the AP family, but relations to other Papuan families remain unclear because of lexical disparities. By studying lexical data in conjunction with a large set of structural features (i.e., combine lexical with structural phylogenetics) across minimally six AP languages, we will model historical relations within the family.


As such, this project addresses a pressing need for methods to establish historical relations between groups whose languages have no obvious lexical overlap. Beyond Papuan studies (linguistic and other), this may well have wider methodological and theoretical implications.


References Link


(1) The most important site in eastern Indonesia is Liang Bua in central Flores (Morwood et al. 2004), located several hundreds of kilometers west of the LPA area. Mid 2012 a site was opened in Pain Haka, east Flores (investigators Simanjuntak, Galipaud, Buckley), fairly close to the LPA region. Results are expected towards the end of 2015.

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Exploring the difference between linguistic borrowing and inheritance ...