Language Instinct, Elephant’s Trunk and Spandrels

‘The Language Instinct’ by Prof. Steven Pinker is a very thought-provoking read, which discusses the language as a gene-modulated evolutionary process tied to natural selection. Professor Pinker’s erudition and the astounding grasp of niceties of English language brightly shine through the book. It was a great piece of writing through and through which can adore any array of dazzling books on a bookshelf.  Irrespective of whether this writer is up to the task of criticizing an intellectual of Prof. Pinker’s caliber, I would like to pick on one or two points that troubled me about the book. If the reader were an arrogant Darwinist, taking all of it on faith, there would be little or no unanswered questions about the material discussed in the book. However, for a doubting Thomas like the writer of this article, the tone of the book is an unsettling eulogy of a one-sided world-view, which seems to scorn even the slightest hint of dissent on the orthodoxy of modern synthesis of evolution.

Professor Pinker’s key arguments about the unique features in animal kingdom arising from the slow natural selection process can be found in a chapter on the essence of Darwinian ideas (Chapter 11 The Big Bang). Unfortunately, the current writer was not convinced about the relevance of those arguments and counter-arguments about the process that gave rise to Language Instinct through the natural selection.  Furthermore, the logical foundation of these arguments seems to be more relevant to a philosophical discussion rather than to a persuasive scientific reasoning. Despite our physiological summersault, which could have well been fatal, of sending food and drinks over the opening to the trachea, to the food pipe, the language skills have evolved. The main point is about the process, which like the Elephants’ trunk, unique in the animal kingdom, produced physiological infrastructure required for our ability to talk.

Prof. Pinker acknowledges that the difference of Language from other animals’ communication systems is as obvious “as the elephant’s trunk is different from other animals’ nostrils (p334: Pinker 1994).” He further says that uniquely human language instinct is no more of a paradox than a trunk of the modern elephant (p342: Pinker 1994). Thus, we are apparently supposed to acknowledge the possibility of a process analogous to, in its uniqueness, what gave rise to the trunk, offering us our unique ability to communicate. This view is inadvertently trying to use an argument of “analogy”, namely, the uniqueness about language skills of humans and the evolutionary path of the elephant’s trunk.  This analogy about these functionally different characteristics does not seem to prove that the language is not a spandrel. On the other hand, each and every species is unique and the uniqueness itself can only support Prof. Pinker’s point to the extent that completely unique evolutionary adaptations can arise. If the elephant could talk like a parrot with the help of  its trunk, it would have been a far more reasonable comparison.

Taking a shot at the work of Professors Gould and Lewontins on spandrels, perhaps latently provoked by their dismissal of “just-so-stories” coming from evolutionary psychology, or dismissing Professor Chomsky ‘s more measured views may not hold any substance as a scientific device.  I do not think for a moment that Professor Chomsky, a true genius insightful enough to propose the widely accepted theory of inborn universal grammar, didn’t master the Darwinian views. He only tiptoed on a topic, which many Dogmatic Darwinists are inclined to believe as the absolute truth. Even if the natural selection produced the elephant’s trunk, there’s no guarantee that the same is true for human language.

Prof. Pinker agrees that “Gould and Lewontin’s essays have been influential in the cognitive sciences, and Chomsky’s skepticism that natural selection can explain human language is in the spirit of their critique (p359: Pinker 1994).”

This is obviously the case when Chomsky writes, as quoted in Prof. Pinker’s book, “These skills (for example, learning a grammar) may well have arisen as a concomitant of structural properties of the brain that developed for other reasons (p362: Pinker 1994).” This clearly is a mention of a spandrel, which may be a more natural treatment of the origin of language. This writer couldn’t find an argument in the book to defend a direct adaptation. Prof. Pinker himself says that only suggestive evidence for a grammar gene is available and its locus, given such a gene exists, is completely unknown (p.325: Pinker 1994). Lai, C.S. et al. (2001), identified a gene FOXP2 as the gene responsible for the language impairment of London Family known as KE family. To their credit, this may be the gene Prof. Pinker’s collaborator, Prof. Myrna Gopnik and Prof. Pinker postulated. However, more likely scenario would be what Jon Cohen says in his article ‘The Genetics of Language’: problems such as language impairment “are caused by subtle aberrations in genes and networks of genes working in concert[1]. But it is still not known whether FOXP2 affects the neurons processing the language or the ones controlling the speech muscles[2]. Until the discovery of such a gene or a network of genes and their direct involvement through natural selection it is more logical to agree with Prof. Chomsky, is it not? The Language faculty may well be a by-product of the encephalization process which accompanied the making of human. If analogy is a good argument, why didn’t natural selection work for talking birds, who can pick our speech and vocalize it so well, to develop language faculty, which is simply “an adaptation for the communication of knowledge and intentions (Pinker and Jackendoff 2005)”?  If they mastered vocalization like our language how well it would serve their survival and dispersion. Their communal behaviours may not be as complex as ours but a complex language beyond a mating or territorial call will still help. We know this from Vervet monkeys who possess a repertoire of alarm calls.

The point I am trying to make here is that the origin of language should not be pigeonholed to a Neo-Darwinian mould without enough supportive evidence. Such procrustean view may lead to wrong conclusions and a hold-up of further development of visionary ideas. This brings me to a story, about the mammoths, that I recently read. It tells the story brought in by the Russian explorers who met the Dolgan, a tribe of reindeer herders, centuries ago. They warned the explorers about the giant moles that avoided sunlight and fresh air. As soon as they broke through the ice cover they died instantly (p 53: Firestone et al). This is an example of the use of the rule of thumb logic by these tribesmen reminding of conceptual similarities to homology; the subterranean life of furry mole and the ice covered bodies of wooly mammoths. The limited knowledge the tribesmen had about their surrounding was extended to a novel situation based on vague similarities between mammoths and known creatures. In the shadow of the status of our current knowledge, such may be the connection between Language Instinct and the effect of the known genetic basis. At this point in time, the experts don’t know any better. But, there is no doubt that Prof. Pinker’s book is an insightful book to read.


Pinker, Steven 1994 The Language Instinct, Penguin Books

Firestone, R., A. West, and S. Warwick-Smith 2006 The cycle of cosmic catastrophes, Bear and Company, Rochester

Lai, C.S. et al. 2001 A forkhead-domain gene is mutated in a severe speech and language disorder. Nature 413: 519–523

Pinker, Steven and Ray Jackendoff. 2005 The Faculty of Language: What’s Special About It? Cognition 95: 201–236



[1] Cohen, Jon (2007) The Genetics of Language, MIT Technology Review

[2] Prof. Richard Huganir as quoted by Pennisi, Elizabeth (2013) ‘Language Gene’ has a partner,

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Memory, Consciousness and “Proof of Heaven” by Eben Alexander

During my Christmas Holidays, I enthusiastically read the book “Proof of Heaven” by Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, (Pan Macmillan Australia, 2012).  This book having been on the bestseller list, despite what its title says, does not provide even an inkling of a proof of the existence of Heaven or God. It only shows the personal journey of Mr Alexander, in a coma, through his mind over a seven day period.  In fairness to good surgeon, it should be mentioned he himself didn’t like the title. The book attracted many accolades as well as heavy criticism. He was exposed as a person who lost his surgeon’s licence and hadn’t been practicing for several years.  He was finger-pointed as a medical professional who altered medical records of a patient suing him for negligence.

The crux of the matter is, as Mr Alexander rightly pointed out, he only wanted to tell his personal experience which was not relevant to all the peripheral mud-slinging unless his detractors wanted to brand him as a dishonest person cooking up a story to make money. It should also be acknowledged that he had to seek assistance from many people around him to write the story in the world around a person in coma. So everything in the book may not be up to the scrutiny. It is up to the scientific community to see through his central claims rather than spending time undermining his personal credibility. It is easy to be a sceptic or critic and find faults with someone or something not shedding much light on the issue at hand. That process, in my opinion, doesn’t make our views any scientific or more logical. In any case, Mr Alexander’s story is very unconvincing proof of a NDE as he didn’t even claim to have encountered any provable experience like an out of body view of the world. An out-of-body experience at least tells us something that would be very difficult for the person to otherwise perceive.

According to Prof. Edelman, the consciousness is what abandons us every evening when we go to sleep to reappear in the morning as we wake up. Immediate memory is supposed to be consciousness itself. If the NDE which Dr. Alexander experienced had been an unconscious phenomenon, how, as Dr. Michael Shermer asked, could he remember it? Did he see a dream just before he woke up? Memory is thought to be mainly a physiological process. If it weren’t, why do we remember our sensory perceptions that we paid attention to and not everything that simply passed by us? How can, then, our immediate memories record things which elude us immediately afterward? For an example, take subliminal messages. As Mr. Alexander even couldn’t recognize, at once, the angel who helped him as his dead, biological sister, he didn’t experience anything out of ordinary but a simple dream-like-state? No definitive answer!

Our memory may well be a more complex process than we believe.  According to Prof. Antonio Damasio, the mind is not just the brain but the interacting system of the brain and whole human organism. Perhaps, our body may record our experiences which don’t register in our consciousness. We don’t know for sure. This enquiry can also lead us to the age old idea of a soul. Is there an entity external to our physical reality? Or the memory and consciousness may be individual-specific external micro-organisms interacting with our bodies; a part of an extended organism. This externality rules us when we are asleep and interacts with us when we are awake? Was Mr Alexander’s coma such a state?

Thus, Mr Alexander’s encounter with a NDE doesn’t add much value to our understanding of spiritual concept of Heaven or God. In similar vein, his critics could neither add anything substantial to the debate on NDEs. This is more so as I don’t believe in hiding the head in the sand and refuse to see what may be real unless proven otherwise.

All the questions and doubts I had before reading “Proof of Heaven” and various reviews of it, I still harbour in my mind. However, I profoundly congratulate Mr. Alexander for coming out with his story to strengthen the case for research into NDEs. When taken into consideration all the wasted resources on many exotic topics in main stream science, investigating something relevant to human experience in a space avoided by serious science should always be applauded.

At the end, I tend to agree with the following statement Mr. Alexander made in his book.  In my mind, it takes us to the core of humanity and the essence of some of our religions.

“Love is, without a doubt, the basis of everything. Not some abstract, hard-to-fathom kind of love but the day-to-day kind that everyone knows-the kind of love we feel when we look at our spouse and our children, or even our animals. In its purest and most powerful form, this love is not jealous or selfish, but unconditional. This is the reality of realities, the incomprehensibly glorious truth of truths that lives and breathes at the core of everything that exists or that ever will exist, and no remotely accurate understanding of who and what we are can be achieved by anyone who does not know it, and embody it in all of their actions.” p71

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Farming and Seclusion of Girls at Puberty

The following is based on the email correspondence between the admin of this website and a learned blogger on  Anthropology.  The intention of publishing these excerpts is to answer some questions various people may have in mind about the topic of seclusion of girls. (Please note that some high-lighting and footnotes were added for the purpose of this post. Some spelling mistakes in the original emails were also corrected.)

 Anthropology Website: “I don’t believe there was any “seclusion of girls at puberty”: it’s before farming! All those repressive ideas arrived with farming, herding and therefore incipient forms of slavery as in patriarchy.

Hunter-gatherer societies do not have such absurd ideas: not a single one of them! There are of course cultural variants but they are invariably communist, egalitarian and democratic.”

 Admin: “Please let me quote you without your name in my blog and answer this critique. I consider it to be a good point to be answered. I also like to discuss this in my current work.”

 Anthropology Website: “Feel free to quote if you think it’s useful. It is in any case just my opinion but I feel justified based on the anthropology of hunter-gatherers. Please, do not confuse with  “primitive” farmers such as Papuans or most Native American peoples, it is a common misunderstanding that causes the wrong kind of conclusions: when studying hunter-gatherers, be certain that their economy is or was until very recently exclusively about foraging, “mixed” economies with some farming/herding and some foraging should be classified always as farmer economies.”

Admin: “I don’t intend to waste your time. I beg to differ as the practice may be 40Kyr old as I  reasoned in the attached working paper. If you have 60 secs, this may give you the flavour. Aboriginal people never had farming. At least it shows a new perspective. (Reference to Antiquity of Secluding Girls at Puberty)

Anthropology Website: “Pretty interesting. I was not aware that such practices existed among Australian Aborigines.

However, before I can conclude that the practice was widespread in Eurasia, I would have to know of it existing among some other Asian hunter-gatherers, of which there are quite a few (in South, SE and North Asia, as well as among the Native Americans). Otherwise it may well be a cultural founder effect exclusive of Australasia.  

Admin:”…….. There were many other people practising seclusion including SAN people of South Africa.  For additional stuff, I can refer you to Sir G.J.Frazer’s ‘Balder The Beautiful’ or ‘The Golden Bough’. My web site has some references, too. Perhaps, you may see why your opinion about the nexus between slavery and seclusion doesn’t hold. Rather, as I reason in my other ‘working’ papers, Seclusion exalted girl’s position.” (G.J. Frazer should be corrected to J.G.Frazer – Admin)

Anthropology Website: “”The Golden Bough” was written in 1890. I don’t reject it’s interest but it’s like studying Anthropology on Engels’ “The Origin of Family, Private Property and State” (1884) or its main source “Ancient Society” of Lewis H. Morgan (1877). They are great works for their age but one wonders if all what is in them is correct (sometimes not quite). I would appreciate more recent field studies or at the very least critical reviews.

The main problem I see with these all-encompassing theoretical anthropologists is that they never actually made themselves the field work whose results they used. So for me it would be much more credible if the seclusion practices were referred to the original field study and, even better, if later studies have confirmed this practice.   I’m not saying it’s some sort of erudite myth but I would really like to have a stronger confirmation, really. Certainly a lot of societies, ancient and modern alike, never had such “purity” taboos, so it’s obvious that they could break free from such superstitions.

 One problem I find to seclusion is that hunter-gatherers are generally on the move, so keeping people in one place for weeks or months is extremely impractical[1]. And at the very least other hunter-gatherers do not practice any such rites. Some of them do not even dispose of their dead, what directly challenges the somewhat “religious” ideas on the so-called “modern human behavior” organized around an alleged symbolism (art, beliefs and rites) that is often non-existent or very tenuous in fact. Another reason is that their societies normally only have spontaneous hierarchies, so I find extremely difficult for them to enforce any rule unless there is a very strong consensus on it, and, even then, not if the affected individual rebels. Not just “spontaneous” (emotional) violence (sometimes with result of death) is relatively common inside hunter-gatherer groups but also “voting with the feet”, i.e. moving to another camp or even to a new territory altogether[2]. Keeping the group together therefore requires a continuous work of creation and reinforcement of consensus and emotional bonds, what implies that you can’t force almost anything on others. Of course kids of that age are probably manipulated by their elders and the community’s superstitions but I’m in any case in disbelief about this kind of practices being widespread. I may be wrong, of course.”

 Admin: “Thanks for the lengthy response. I can appreciate your concern about the old books and importance of field work. I grew up in a country where seclusion was practised so heavily. But when I visit there now, the practice is almost dead. Over the years, due to shrinking of distance around the globe, traditions started to die. Thus, to me, The Golden Bough is a time capsule. I do not wish to comment on Engle’s work as his was a political statement. In Engle’s case, he had dialectical laws to fit the world into. As he said in Anti-Duhring, ‘the same laws…form the thread running through the history of development of human thought’. If Frazer had an agenda, it had perhaps been to find examples for Bastian’s ideas. Thus, I would treat Frazer’s work as far more facts-based anthropological investigations than Engle’s. Interpretation of Frazer’s work can be done by anyone using his facts though his interpretations, in phenomenological sense, have a better chance to be very close to what the people in the original plot thought. I like these old writings without modernist interpretations because I fear twisted worldviews which are shaped by Evolutionist view or some other kind of point of view like a feminist view, far removed from the simplicity and reality of the bygone era. Here, I can see parallels to processual and post-processual debate. No amount of fieldwork on this subject can bring you back what had passed by. Sometimes, an armchair investigator can have the insights which the original researcher didn’t have. The reason is simple. Nobody can claim the monopoly of good insights. I believe that the value of an insight is about how well it explains the facts known and coming to light in future; not how much field work the person with insight did undertake. It is easy for a person working in the field to strike upon a great insight even though it wouldn’t be guaranteed. It is also true that from a distance, you can see the picture in a different light which eludes the painter. “




[1] I didn’t bother myself answering this. It is generally accepted that the movements of hunter-gatherers are seasonal to some extent.  Here, I shall only refer to Dr. Richard B. Lee who wrote about !Kung Bushman of Botzwana that “the Bushmen typically occupy a camp for weeks or months and literally eat their way out of it”. They stayed in the same camp site even after exhausting the nearby resources. From their usual camp site, they would simply travel beyond the nearby area for new food sources. It is noteworthy that, according to Lee,!Kung during 1960’s were confined to less resourceful lands than what they had before, making them more likely to move around yet staying put for longer times.  There may not be picture perfect similarity between these modern hunter-gatherers and pre-historic people who might have scavenged as well. However, as accepted by many, some behaviours can still be deemed as relevant.
[2] Again I would like to refer to Lee, leaving the question about authority for another time. Bushmen he studied had camps around wells. The composition of these camps changed frequently over the year and even day-to-day. Even if person or a group leaves to another territory, staying in the new location would be dependent on local resources which should not necessarily result in regular movement.

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The Ancient Coins in Arnhem Land Expedition

Summing up a talk by Wolfgang Pauli on his work with Werner Heisenberg ,  Niels Bohr once questioned whether their theory was crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.  Niels Bohr is very highly placed to comment on crazy ideas as a pioneer of Quantum mechanics who proposed the complementarity principle.  Even though not on the same scale, one would wonder whether launching an archaeological expedition to learn more about few ancient coins found on the shore of a small uninhabited island can also be a crazy idea.  As Bohr implied, sometimes crazy ideas can work wonders.  Similarly, if there are some interesting artefacts to be uncovered in Wessel Islands, it may lead to a revision of Australian History.  The Kilwa coins are thought to be about 1000 years old. It would be far more interesting if the process which landed the coins on the beach was as ancient.  Would there be any clues to provide answers to this question?  Any sound archaeological evidence about movement of seafaring vessels around that time closer to the northern Australia would also make an encounter between Indians and Australians a few hundred years before then little more plausible[1] as they had been very active in the region. Thus, the importance of this expedition is far more than what it seems.

Prof.  Ian McIntosh, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University, is leading the expedition to study more about Kilwa Coins which were found by Maurice Isenberg, an Australian soldier stationed on Australia’s uninhabited Wessel Islands during World War II. In 1979

In a statement released to a paper, he stated “Multiple theses have been put forward by noted scholars, and the major goal is to piece together more of the puzzle. Is a shipwreck involved? Are there more coins? All options are on the table, but only the proposed expedition can help us answer some of these perplexing questions[2]

There is a facebook page dedicated to the expedition which can be found at the following address:

[1] Arachige, Darshi, Do the Estimated Admixture Times Confirm the Proposed Holocene Gene Flow from India to Australia? (March 10, 2013). Available at SSRN:

[2] Zoe Mintz, “African Coins Found In Australia: 1,000-Year-Old Discovery May Rewrite Country’s History, Was James Cook The First’?” at, Published on 20/5/2013

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Were Baijini from India?

The topic of this post is from an internet search phrase. Let us look at this question assuming that the Baijini were not a figment of imagination.  In my previous post, the possibility for an Indian connection to Baijini was speculated.  This addendum is not to substantiate it but rather to point out few points that could drive somebody to similar speculation.

According to mainstream view, Baijini were gypsies[1]. Here, the noun “gypsy” was used to infer itinerant nature of Baijini.  Were they really itinerant?  Same document contradicts this view.  The Baijini constructed stone houses, wove cloth, tended small gardens and cultivated rice.  If they had been a wandering community, why did they build stone houses which would be a way for a group of people who wanted a sedentary life?  Why did the wandering people tend gardens or grow rice? To cultivate rice, they had to use unhusked rice. They had to bring it in their vessels.  Why did an itinerant group of people take unhusked rice on their travels?  Could it be for them to settle down somewhere and start cultivating rice varieties they used to grow in the place where they started their journey from?  Did they resemble more to a group of settlers who lost their way? Did the shipwreck mention in the lore of Aboriginal people make any sense? From recorded history, it is known that this part of the world had been very active with Indenisation about 2000BP. If Baijini were Chinese people, it would be bit inappropriate to refer to them as “copper-coloured”.

With a remarkable lucidity, Stephen Jay-Gould points out that “Science, as actually practiced, is a complex dialogue between data and preconceptions.[2]” This remarkably honest insight about the way of Science by a superb scientist of our time shows us the direction the next phase of this journey of facing real Baijini should turn.  To shed a bit more light on this, in the absence of Archaeological data, Population Geneticists are the ones equipped with the required tools. Carefully revisiting the  genetic data without preconceived ideas can lead to an unprejudiced outcome to settle the question whether a plausible genetic admixture between Indians and Aboriginal Australians happened closer to 1000AD or 4000BP. Without prior prejudice or preconceptions, in order to partially answer the question asked at the very outset, let us implore someone with the ready access to data, to try a confirmatory analysis or a meta-analysis.

[1]Possibility C Baijini, National Museum of Australia available at

[2] P.244. Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, Hutchinson Radius, London (1989)

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Do the estimated admixture times confirm the proposed Holocene Gene flow from India to Australia?

Arachige, Darshi, Do the Estimated Admixture Times Confirm the Proposed Holocene Gene Flow from India to Australia? (March 10, 2013). Available at SSRN:


 This paper argues that the current estimates for the time of influx of Indian genes into some sections of Australian Aboriginal population during Holocene bear large uncertainties which make elimination of the probability of a more recent gene flow less likely.  It also highlights that indications for the plausibility of a later gene flow exist and can also be placed in a likely archaeological perspective.





In the recent proceedings of the national academy of sciences, a team from Max Plank Institute published a research paper to confirm the recent genetic connection between Indians and Aboriginal Australians (Pugach et al, 2013). The team based their conclusion on a study involving single-nucleotide polymorphism. This research paper generated much interest and was widely written about (The Economist, Jan 2013; Nature, Jan 2013). The authours concluded that there was a gene flow from Indian Subcontinent as late as 4230 years ago.  This confirmation of the previous research by Redd et al (2002) and Redd and Stoneking (1999) can become crucial in establishing this gene flow hypothesis as fact. In this investigation, it will be attempted to have an unbiased look at their analyses and conclusions by comparing them with other relevant studies.  It would also be argued that an Indian genomic influence more recent than the proposed one is not improbable if the available analyses and arguments are further looked into. One of supportive arguments, i.e. the time of admixture, which can be used to exclude this possibility, can be shown as inadequate due to the reasons pointed out in the first few sections of the present paper.  Two key points that will be looked at are the sample selection and the results from the Principal Component Analysis as they might have had an adverse impact on the estimation of the time of gene flow, demanding some error calculation around the estimate.  The possibility of a similar gene flow taking place in a more recent time will also be explored. This later investigation will use the errors associated with various estimated times for the proposed genomic contact to argue for a more recent encounter between Indian visitors and Australian Aboriginal people.

Sample of the Pugach Study

Pugach et al (2013), following similar studies prior to theirs, assembled data from published sources including the HapMap Project.  The samples used include twenty individuals from each of the following groups:  Yorubans from Ibadan, Nigeria (YRI); the individuals of northern and western European ancestry living in Utah (CEU); Han Chinese individuals from Beijing, China (CHB); and Gujarati Indians from Houston, TX (GIH).  The study used twelve Aboriginal Australians from Northern Territory (AUA) and twenty five individuals from the highlands of Papua New Guinea (NGH).   Looking at the samples from various populations as presented in the Fig S1, one cannot stop wondering about the unusually homogeneous samples representing Europeans (CEU), Chinese (CHB) and Africans (YRI). To see such tightly packed clusters in Principal Component plots, the original data points for individual contributors, if representative of the wider population, should have very slight variability which is not explained in the paper or the coefficients from a principal component are having variable impacts on different elements of the data vectors to give similar overall scores for the small number of individuals in the group. This begs caution when interpreting the PCA plots.

Furthermore, it is good to be conscious of what the International HapMap 3 Consortium (2010) has to say: “None of the sample sets can be considered completely representative of a larger population, nor certainly of an entire continent.  Thus, for example, references to the “African,” “Asian,” or “European” “populations” should be avoided when referring to these samples.” Thus, it requires caution before concluding the link between the broader Aboriginal Australia and Indian subcontinent.  The people from prehistoric archaeological sites where the early inhabitants of Australia (McEvoy, 2010) were discovered had not been included in the investigation.  Thus, the conclusions from Pugach et al (2013) should not be applicable to all of Australia.

Analytical results

It is also important for one to look at the analyses which helped the authours to arrive at the link between Indian genomes and the Australian ones. This would help us interpret the robustness of the estimate, given in the paper, of the time to admixture in the proper context.

Thus, as the authours relied on the first principal axes from a series of Principal Component Analyses (PCAs) for dimensionality reduction in the time estimation phase via stepPCO (Pugach et al, 2011), the estimation of admixture times might have been impacted by the less clear signals coming from these repeated PCAs.   The robustness of these repeated PCA results can be distantly judged from the related analyses where they employed PCA. The following review, emphasising each PC, is an attempt to see the rigour of the results from such related analyses.

Based on one of the initial PCAs, interpreting Fig S1, Pugach et al (2013) commented:

AUA are close to NGH but extend toward the European/Indian/Asian grouping, suggesting a common origin with the former and admixture with the latter.”

This comment seems to set the tone for the arguments, the paper is addressing.  More obvious deduction from Fig S1 is that given the size of Eigen values, the first two principal components are the important ones.  To use a broader generalization, PC1 is clearly representing Australian and New Guinean cluster versus the others while PC2 is polarised as African/Australian/ New Guinean and others. When the two components are taken together, we have three distinct clusters, namely, African as a stand-alone cluster, Australian/New Guinean cluster and Chinese/Dravidian/Gujarati/European cluster. Any further interpretation may amount to treading on unstable ground. As interpreting diagrammatic representations can be associated with a degree of subjectivity, the thesis about admixture and common origin based on these PCs seems a tenuous deduction.

In an immediate sentence, the authours made another comment;

AUA and NGH are separated along PC4, after the separation of CEU and CHB along PC3  (Fig. S1B). The prior separation of CEU and CHB could suggest that AUA and NGH diverged after European and Asian populations,..”  Given the Eigen value distribution, it might be reasonable for the authours to look at PC3. However, in the light of large dimensionality of the dataset which makes identification of contributing dimensions hard, it is very difficult to understand the inclusion of PC4, which is almost similar to PC5 in magnitude. Furthermore, it may not be justifiable to interpret PC3 and PC4 in a temporal sense i.e. AUA and NGH diverged after European and Asian populations.  In Fig S1C, PC1 shows the separation between AUA/NGH groups from other groups.  If we wish to include PC2 as well, the conclusion would be the separation of AUA and Pilipino Negrito (MWA) groups from the South East Asia and New Guinea groups.  If both PC1 and PC2 are considered together, then, there are five clusters to be seen such that AUA, NGH and MWA clusters individually stand out from the rest. Looking at Fig 3A, obvious conclusion based on PC1 which is associated with the most substantial Eigen value, is the differentiation between AUA/NGH and other groups. PC2 which is substantially less important, place Indians, Australians and New Guineans together.  All the PC graphs indicate the closeness of AUA and NGH groups more than anything else.


Furthermore, if we carefully look at Fig S8 A, it is obvious that PC1 separates Indian/European cluster from the Chinese/South East Asian/New Guinean/Australian cluster obscured by the individuals from Nysha. PC2 does not seem to be interesting unless the Eigen values, which are not given, show otherwise. If we carry through the arguments put forward by the authours in the previous sections of the article, the scores spread along PC1 shows more affinity between South East Asian and Australian samples which are closer together.

When using similar analyses, it is always good to remember the advice by the statistician F.M.C. Marriott.

“It must be emphasised that no mathematical method is, or could be, designed to give physically meaningful results. If a mathematical expression of this sort has an obvious physical meaning, it must be attributed to a lucky chance, or to the fact that the data have a strongly marked structure that shows up in the analysis. Even in the latter case, quite small sampling fluctuations can upset the interpretation..” (as quoted in p.53, Everitt and Dunn, 1991).


Main thesis Pugach et al (2013) are trying to establish is a Holocene gene flow from India to Australia which did not pass through South East Asian region[1] or Papua New Guinea. However, PCA graphs alone do not seem to carry the thrust of the argument in the paper as the closeness of NGH and AUA is very pronounced.  Thus, the use of PCA for dimensionality reduction in the context of further deductions i.e. admixture time should be treated with some caution due to possible differences in expected and observed information contents.


Time of the Indian Gene Flow

Furthermore, the Australian sample used is from an area very vulnerable to external influences. Population in the area had been in contact, for an example, with Indonesians for a long time so that their periodic arrival in boats were woven into the Aboriginal culture in Northern Australia (p412-420: Mulvaney and Kamminga, 1999).  Thus, conclusions drawn from the study should be confined to the parts of Australia contributing the study sample, i.e. Northern Territory and should be viewed in perspective to sampling limitations. As the authours assert, Fig 3B, the ADMIXTURE chart for four group scenario, showing colour signals from Indian samples spreading into AUA sample can be interpreted as indicative of the admixture between Indian visitors and Australian people living in the area. Thus, the next step of determining the possible time during which such admixture could have taken place naturally follows the above.

Turning to the issue of time of admixture between Indian genomes and Australian genomes, Pugach et al (2013) claimed that it took place 141 generations or 4230 years ago.  The authours used 30 years as the length of a generation.  Another study addressing the same issue about Indian – Australian gene flow (Redd et al, 2002) used a generation length of 25 years. If we use this in Pugach study, we end up with an admixture time of 3525 years, which is 700 years later. The estimate done by Pugach team is smaller than 4875 years which was estimated using Y chromosomal data and a Bayesian method by Redd et al (2002). As usual with Bayesian methods, this Time to Most Recent Common Ancestor estimate is based on prior information, a value for effective population size, an unknown.  The 95% CIs for two methods Redd et al (2002) employed were: (300–2,775 years)[2] and (1,255–13,300 years). The first estimate was based on the assumption of a linear trend and the second was based on the Bayesian method. According to Redd et al (2002), the widely used linear trend method is considered as a robust method to estimate times of divergence.  It is also noteworthy that the authours hadn’t used any sample from the Aboriginal populations who were less exposed to northern neighbours. One of the pioneering papers to promote the idea of gene flow from the Indian subcontinent was written by Redd and Stoneking (1999). They used the Multidimensional Scaling, which under some circumstances can be equivalent to PCA, and tree diagrams to investigate the proximity of Australian and Indian groups.  The estimates for the time of separation for Australian and Indian populations were (1,686–5,093 years) based on net genetic divergence estimate of 0.03% (+/-0.03%).  Note the large standard error associated with the genetic divergence estimate[3].  Now we can clearly see, apart from Pugach et al (2013), the other two teams provide confidence intervals for their estimates which are substantially wide.  Noting that the wavelet method uses first principal component, which only captures a part of the variability from the available SNP information, it is not unreasonable to expect a range of values rather than the absolute estimate of 4230 years.


Form a statistical point of view if we choose a time point between 1700 and 2000 years prior to present generation, that time point would sit snugly within any of those confidence intervals. This is especially so when Y chromosomal data and the linear time trends are used (i.e. 95% CI: 300–2,775 years) or a slightly faster mutation rate is used with the divergence values from Redd and Stoneking (1999).  For the following discussion let us focus on 1700 years prior to the study generation. Now we have to see whether there is other evidence provided to support the proposed Holocene gene flow hypothesis.


Holocene contacts between India and Australia


All three research teams, namely, Pugach et al (2013), Redd et al (2002) and Redd and Stoneking (1999) use the same set of archaeological evidence to support their theory.

  1. change in stone implements technology during Holocene
  2. new ways of food processing
  3. appearance of dingo in Australia
  4. the expansion of the Pama-Nyungan languages

However, none of the authours could directly link these changes to Indian influence.  There would be many questions one would like to ask. For an example, if the Indians could come to Australia by-passing South East Asia during the proposed times in Holocene, they had to have very good navigational skills perhaps ahead of their times[4]. What did cause such a navigational adventure? According to the proponents of the theory, Dingo had to come on board a vessel (Redd et al, 2002) navigated by those early Indians. Why did such an advanced group of people only bring small tool technology when they themselves had emerged out of Stone Age in their homeland? Did Indians detoxify and use cycads as food, the way the Aboriginal Australians did?


According to Morwood (2002), some 5000 years ago dingo was introduced to Australia presumably from Timor. Dingo like skeletal remains of this age had been found in Timor (p22). Furthermore,

The dingo originated from a population of East Asian dogs. Type A29 was one of several domestic dog mtDNA types brought into Island Southeast Asia, but only A29 reached Australia. The dingo population was probably founded from a small number of animals, as the last trickle of domestic dogs through a series of bottlenecks, or even by a single chance event and has since remained effectively isolated from other dog populations. The dingoes may have arrived in connection with the expansion, starting ?6,000 yr ago, from south China into Island Southeast Asia of the Austronesian culture (Savolainen et al, 2004).” Their results were further confirmed by Ardalan et al (2012) stating that on genetic evidence, dingo had to come via Papua New Guinea.  It would be going against the evidence based on genetic studies to conclude that dingo originated from a dog with an Indian ancestry and arrived in Australia on a boat. Morwood further assures that the most aspects of cultural change over the past 5000 years can be explained in terms of indigenous Australian developments (p.24: Morwood,2002). Let alone the Indian influence, Mulvaney and Kamminga (1999) claim that new implement types, arrival of dingo and detoxyfication of cycads lack evidence as “a single cultural package from overseas (p258).” Thus, it is very unlikely that there exists an irrefutable connection between the aforementioned changes and purported Indian influence during the proposed time in Holocene. Thus, the aforesaid cultural changes alone do not substantiate a Holocene gene flow of the said nature.


More Recent Contacts


It is also noteworthy that Kumar et al (2009) finding a link between the M42 haplogroup specific to Australian Aboriginal people and seven mitochondrial genomes identified from 966 individuals belonging to  twenty six relic tribes of India concluded:

“The divergence of the Indian and Australian M42 coding region sequences suggests an early colonization of Australia,~60 to 50 kyBP, quite in agreement with archaeological evidences.“.

In a later study, McEvoy et al (2010) used a sample of Aboriginal people from Riverine Region of Australia which includes Lake Mungo to carry out a genome-wide study of SNP diversity. This study found that Australian Aboriginal people from the Riverine Region had a deep link to Papua New Guineans and Melanesians. They couldn’t detect genetic evidence for any substantial migration prior to European colonisation of Australia. This result has been further confirmed by Rasmussen et al (2011) using a genomic sequence which was obtained from a 100-year-old lock of hair donated by a Western Australian Aboriginal person in the early 20th century. These results prove that the validity of inferring a Holocene Indian gene flow covering the continent of Australia is, in the least, questionable. However, this does not exclude the possibility that there was an admixture between Indian and Australian genomes in a localised fashion in more recent times as Pugach et al (2013), Redd et al (2002) and, Redd and Stoneking (1999) deduced through their research.


The analyses by the authours other than Pugach et al (2013) demonstrate that the date of such an admixture can be more recent as the confidence intervals around the divergence times are relatively wide. Therefore, we can go back about 17 centuries still agreeing with the estimated confidence limits calculations.  Do we have any evidence, though vague, for Indian presence in the region closer to the above time frame?




Based on the Song Cycles of Aboriginal people in the Arnhem Land, the anthropologists, Berndt and Berndt (1954) described the encounters between the natives and a group of foreign visitors identified as Baijini who came to their shores before Macassan traders. According to the description by Berndt and Berndt (1954), Baijini visited the Arnhem Land in ships, brought their families (with kids[5]), cultivated rice, built stone dwellings and stayed for long periods. The women wore colourful sarongs and cultivated rice. Berndt and Berndt (p36: 1954) mentioned about references to a shipwreck as the reason for the first landing of the Baijini. They are considered as an Indonesian contact which happened in the early sixteenth century (p15: Berndt and Berndt, 1954)[6]. Aboriginal people particularly remember the Baijini apart from Macassans due to their golden copper-coloured skin and presence of women.  Women manufactured cloths for their own use. Some historians say that these are about the experiences of Aboriginal people who went to the lands of Macassans on their return trips back home (p421: Mulvaney and Kamminga, 1999). No one knows for sure who these people were or whether they really existed.  A detailed discussion on various viewpoints about Baijini can be found in Turner (2006).


Do we ignore the song cycle about Baijini as yarns about imaginary beings or mixed-up cultural memories? Or do we take their historical presence serious as Berndt and Berndt (1954) did? The answer seems to depend on what we wish to do. However trivial or unlikely these cultural memories may sound, is it fitting for us to discredit them as ‘time-wasters’ out of hand? Believing that the Baijini had been real can lead one to more hypotheses about the past that can be further explored. Few important characteristics of the Baijini worth repeating here are their entry into Arnhem Land’s oral history before Macassans, travelling with their families, their golden copper skin colour, rice cultivation and manufacture of cloth.


Indian Gene Flow


The possibility of a Holocene gene flow in the manner proposed in the above papers is generally doubted as the external evidence are lacking; arrival of dingoes, detoxification of cycads and small stone tool technology cannot be directly linked with such an admixture.  Research conducted by Pugach et al (2013), Redd et al (2002) and Redd and Stoneking (1999) show some evidence as to a localised genomic exchange between Dravidians from Indian subcontinent and Australian Aboriginal people from some parts of Australia. Had Dravidians been near the northern shores of Australia in historical times? In fact, around 17 centuries ago, they were in South East Asia as archaeological records confirm.  Javanese chroniclers mention Indians as the colonisers of their land. According to a chronicle in the possession of a Javanese ruler, the king of India sent twenty thousand families to Java who became first successful inhabitants of the land (p78: Raffles, 1830). On the other hand there is evidence for a flourishing Hinduised society in West Java in the 5th Century AD (p83: Sastri, 1949). A five letter stone inscription in a script similar to one used by the Pallavas, found in East Java has been dated to the 5th Century AD (Sarkar, 1969; p83-84: Sastri, 1949). Sastri (1949) stated that the relics of the Mahakam valley from Borneo had been among the earliest known and dating from about 400 AD (p.106). The above dating due to Jean Philippe Vogel is not challenged by more recent researchers (Supomo, 1995);


“The oldest known inscriptions of the Indonesian archipelago are those on seven stone pillars, or y?pa (“sacrificial posts”), found in the area of Kutai, East Kalimantan, some twenty miles from the Makassar Straits. Written in the early Pallava script, these Sanskrit inscriptions were erected to commemorate sacrifices held by a King M?lawarman, and are datable on palaeographical grounds to the second half of the fourth century AD …… but they are the most important evidence that we have that testifies to the emergence of an Indianized state in the Indonesian archipelago prior to AD 400 (p.310)”. Thus, we have very strong evidence to argue that there had been a substantial Dravidian presence a little further to Australia’s northern coast about 17 centuries ago.


As now we know that Dravidians were in the vicinity of Makassar, it would have been very easy for them to visit Arnhem Land or Kimberley region with the help of the northwest monsoonal winds (p.410-411: Mulvaney and Kamminga , 1999).  Thus, if Haviks and Mukris (Redd and Stoneking ,1999) who are usual inhabitants of the western side of Indian subcontinent could genetically contribute to the Australian Aboriginal genome, as the researchers suggested, the Dravidians who might have started from Coromandel Coast (p62: Banerjee, 1921) also stood a similar chance of  such a contribution in rather recent historical times. Thus, given the archaeological evidence from the region and the genetic connection discussed above, the probability of a Dravidian contact around the 4th Century AD is very high.


The other important part of the equation to see whether Baijini gave away anything to show some semblance to Dravidian culture is to look for clues among the Aboriginal people who talked about them. At least from the perspective of oral traditions, encounters that took place long time ago can only be a distant memory tangled with manufactured events, places and people.  As no archaeological evidence has so far been uncovered, the following discussion is about a few possibilities which are mainly speculative.


Similar to Javanese people who thought about Indians as the first settlers in their land, the Aboriginal people placed the Baijini in the distant past. Baijini travelled with their families in a similar fashion to the Indians. It may be a ship full of such migrant families to South East Asia from India ended up in the northern shores of Australia with their weapons, cooking utensils, unhusked rice, cotton wool (?), their spinning wheels, looms, pots for dyeing and various tools for cultivating and to work with stones etc during one north-west monsoonal period. It is also noteworthy that Basedow reported having seen a stone phallus (page x: Basedow, 1925) on one of his trips to the far north western corner of Australia in 1916[7]. If we assume that the Aboriginal people inherited the veneration of phallus from the Baijini, then the mythical Baijini had a very strong connection to the Dravidians who visited from India. Note what Sastri (1949) says about lingam worship in Kalimantan:

There is also a mukhalinga of the sarvasama type in which the square Brahmabh?ga (below), the octagonal Visnubh?ga (middle), and the cylindrical Sivabh?gha (above) are of equal length; the linga comes from Sepaoek in the Sintang division of West Borneo.” p106

According to Sastri (1949), placing lingams in shrines in Java transitioned to shrines with figures only in the 9th and 10th centuries (p.64).  If the migrant families landed in Australia, by chance or not, it would not be surprising to see them, bringing along their objects of worship to Australia. And they, perhaps, came before the said transitionary period[8].  It is not difficult to imagine that the brown skinned people from the subcontinent were seen as copper-coloured. Traditionally, planting and harvesting rice had been women’s work in South Asia. Dravidian women could also have manufactured cloths[9].


It should be noted that it was not attempted in this paper to prove the Baijini legend to be true or otherwise.  What was intended was to show that a recent gene flow between India and Australia is more than or, at least, equally plausible as, the Holocene one proposed in the Literature and the Baijini legend may have some meaning in a historical context.





In the preceding discussion, it was shown that the possibility of a Holocene gene flow between Indian people and Australian Aboriginal people is real. However, the external evidence quoted to support the thesis of such genomic fusion around four thousand years ago is inadequate and does not enjoy the support of many experts in the field. Given the errors associated with the estimated times of a localised admixture between these populations, it is not impossible to find a more recent time for an encounter between South Indian migrants to South East Asia and Aboriginal people from northern parts of Australia. Such an encounter is far more plausible from the archaeological evidence available in the neighbouring islands. Even though it is not possible to link the Baijini gypsies with the Dravidians due to flimsiness of the available information about the former, it is a possibility worth pursuing.




Ardalan, A., Oskarsson, M., Natanaelsson, C.,  Wilton, A.N., Ahmadian,A. and  Savolainen,P (2012) Narrow genetic basis for the Australian dingo confirmed through analysis of paternal ancestry, Genetica, 140:65–73 doi 10.1007/s10709-012-9658-5


Banerjee, Gauranganath (1921) India as known to the ancient world, Oxford University Press, Culcutta: available at


Basedow, Herbert (1929) The Australian Aboriginal, F.W. Preece & Sons, Adelaide


Berndt, Ronald and Berndt, Catherine (1954) Arnhem Land: Its History and Its People, Cheshire, Melbourne


Bonatto, S.L. and  Salzano, F.M (1997) Diversity and age of the four major mtDNA haplogroups, and their implications for the peopling of the New World. Am J Hum Genet 61: 1413–1423


Everitt, Brian S. and Dunn,G. (1991) Applied Multivariate Data Analysis, Edward Arnold, London


Geiger, Wilhelm (1912) Mahavamsa, The Pali Text Society, London: available at


Genomes link aboriginal Australians to Indians: Nature News & Comment (2013) Nature, doi:10.1038/nature.2013.12219


Issacs, Jennifer (1980) Australian dreaming: 40,000 years of Aboriginal History, Lansdowne Press, Sydney


Kumar, S., Ravuri, R.R., Koneru, P., Urade, B.P., Sarkar, B.N., Chandrasekar, A and Rao, V.R

(2009) Reconstructing Indian-Australian phylogenetic link, BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:173 doi: 10.1186/1471-2148-9-173


Malvaney, John and Kamminga, Johan (1999) Prehistory of Australia, Allen and Unwin


McEvoy, B.P., Lind, J. M., Wang, E.T., Moyzis, R.K.,Visscher, P.M.,van Holst Pellekaan, S.M and Wilton, A.N (2010) Whole-Genome Genetic Diversity in a Sample of Australians with Deep Aboriginal Ancestry,  Am. J. Hum. Genet. 87, 297–305



Morwood, M. J. (2002) Visions from the past: The Archaeology of Australian Aboriginal Art, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington


Pugach, I., Delfin, F., Gunnarsdóttir, E., Kayser, M. and Stoneking, M (2013) Genome-wide data substantiate Holocene gene flow from India to Australia Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA


Pugach , I., Matveyev, R., Wollstein, A., Kayser, M. and Stoneking, M (2011) Dating the age of admixture via wavelet transform analysis of genome-wide data, Genome Biology, 12:R19: available at


Prehistoric migration: An Antipodean Raj (2013), The Economist, 17 Jan


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Rasmussen, M. et al. (2011) An Aboriginal Australian Genome Reveals Separate Human Dispersals into Asia Science 334, 94–98


Redd, A.J., Roberts-Thomson, J., Karafet, T., Bamshad, M.,  Jorde, L.B., Naidu, J.M., Walsh, B and Hammer, M.F  (2002) Gene Flow from the Indian Subcontinent to Australia: Evidence from the Y Chromosome, Curr. Biol. 12, 673–677


Redd, A. J. and Stoneking, M (1999) Peopling of Sahul: mtDNA Variation in Aboriginal Australian and Papua New Guinean Populations M. Am. J. Hum. Genet. 65, 808–828


Savolainen, P., Leitner, T., Wilton, A.N., Matisoo-Smith, E. and Lundeberg, J (2004) A detailed picture of the origin of the Australian dingo, obtained from the study of mitochondrial DNA, Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0401814101


Supomo, S (1995) Indic Transformation: TheSanskritization of Jawa and the Javanization of the Bharata in The Austronesians Historical and Comparative Perspectives edited by P. Bellwood, J. J. Fox

and D. Tryon, ANU Press, Canberra: available at


Swain, Tony (1993) A place for strangers: Towards a History of Australian Aboriginal Being, Cambridge University Press


Tamura, K and Nei, M (1993) Estimation of the number of nucleotide substitutions in the control region of mitochondrial DNA in humans and chimpanzees. Mol Biol Evol 10: 512–526


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Turner, Phyllis (2006) The colonisation of Australia prior to European settlement, the Degree of Master of Science Thesis, University of Adelaide


[1] From the discussion in the following sections, the question would arise why the samples from SE Asian region didn’t show clear Indian admixture while the historical evidence show presence of Indians in this part of the world for several centuries.

[2] Computed using average divergence between Australian and Indian C* Chromosomes (0.256) with its standard error (0.105). i.e. 0.256+/- 1.96*0.105 which was translated to a time of divergence based on mutation rate of 2.08E-03.

[3] The authours reported a mean of 3390 years which was based on net average divergence/mutation rate (=0.0003/ 8.85E-08). The net divergence was calculated using Tamura & Nei (1993). Also note that the use of the faster mutation rate for HSV1+HSV11 regions as quoted in Bonatto et al. (1997)  (i.e. 11.5E-08) with the same coefficient of variation as derivable from the corresponding CI calculation in Redd and Stoneking (1999)  yields following  95% CIs (1298 – 3920 years)

[4] Even around 5th century BC, Indians were likely to have navigated close to the land. As narrated in Mahavamsa, the 700 men deported from Bengal landed near Bombay first and then, after embarking from there, in Lanka. (p.xxxvi & p54: Geiger, 1912). Their women and children deported separately also landed in islands near the Indian coast.

[5] See p171 of Swain (1993). The poem has the following:” from the young Baijini playing?”

[6]  This assertion by Berndts is contentious as, following Macknight, Mulvaney and Kamminga (p415: 1999) place Macassans’ arrival around 1700 AD. If Baijini were before Macassans, how did they find themselves with an Aboriginal name with a Macassan root meaning women (p 170: Swain, 1993; p16: Berndt and Berndt, 1954). The way this was possible is by Baijini being contemporary with Macassans or by Song Cycle being post-Macassan or by the Aboriginal name being not of Macassan origin. If, instead of accepting and contradicting it, we accept the Aboriginal myth that the Baijini had been there in the time of the mythical ancestors, Djanggawul sisters and Laindjung (p170-171: Swain, 1999), the origin of the name ‘Baijini’ or ‘Baiini (p261: Issacs, 1980)’ is less likely to be Macassan.

[7] Note that he saw a stone phallus erected in the ground and “surrounded by a cleared cirque where much blood had been spilt at a recent ceremony (p x.: Basedow, 1929).” Similarly he had seen another vertically standing three feet long stone placed in the ground by replacing a natural stone, in the Gleneleg district of the north western corner of Australia(p.288:  Basedow,1925). Basedow discussed seeing the phallus worship in other parts of the continent in the form of using the phallic symbols in ritualistic dancing etc (p.282-283:  Basedow, 1925). However, nothing came close to a worship than the one described in the preface to his book. According to him, phallus worship slips away from new generations. But if what was practised in the past was similar to what he saw, then the above stands out as more devout way of worshiping it; probably similar in spirit to what Hindus did. However, with much blood around what he had seen could also represent a form of sacrificial post similar to yupa stambas in Kalimantan.

[8] In the poem quoted in Swain (1993) we find “..hiding the ladle beneath our arm. It is sacred (p.171)”. Thus, according to the legend, the Aboriginal people had used things left out by Baijini and treated them as sacred.

[9] In a fifth century compilation of earlier works called Mahavamsa, there is mention about a native woman of Lanka spinning when the first Sinhalese people arrived in the island (p56: Geiger, 1912). According to the Chronicles this should have taken place around the 5th century BC. Traditionally, women in the subcontinent might have been manufacturing cloth.

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From Eros to Gaia by Freeman Dyson, Penguin Books, 1992

I do not remember many books after reading which I felt really lucky to have read them. The above book by Freeman Dyson was certainly one of those books.  I find that From Eros to Gaia is a rare book about the process and personalities of science, written by one of the foremost physicists, who had been very active in the last century, in lucid and accessible language.  There aren’t that many scientists who candidly discuss how science works in practice. In his book, Freeman Dyson has shown us a glimpse.

His essay titled “The importance of being unpredictable” is a great lesson in scientific honesty that is uncanny.  Not giving in to his personal prejudice, Freeman Dyson admits to be wrong, at times, in his views about the future of science. When he met Francis Crick at Fanum House after WWII, Crick pointed out that the most exciting science for next twenty years would be biology.  Then, twenty two year old Dyson was so sure physics would lead for another twenty years.  Crick who left physics for biology ended up sharing Noble Prize for the discovery of structure of DNA.  He also talks about an incident involving Patrick Blackett who won a Noble Prize for his work in particle physics. After the WWII he gave a talk in London. Freeman Dyson attended the talk to listen to exciting things about particle physics. Instead, Blackett talked about measuring magnetization in the mud on the ocean bottom.  Dyson was very disappointed.  After seventeen years from then, Blackett’s work helped to prove Wagner’s theory of continental drift and start the new science of plate tectonics.  The fact that a brilliant scientist like Freeman Dyson who reconciled the opinions of Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger and Sin Itiro Tomonaga on quantum electrodynamics, can make wrong judgement calls makes us think about science as a human affair.

He also talks about big blunders, committed by scientists, like the “White Oliphant” accelerator built in Birmingham. The point is that unless scientists are equally conscious about their successes and failures, science would become a falsely prejudicial enterprise. He elegantly touches on the simple science done using brilliant ideas.  One example for simple science is, despite controversy surrounding his Nobel Prize, about the radio telescope built in a Cambridge field by Anthony Hewish.  The lesson we can learn from the book is that the importance of a discovery or a theory should lie in its brilliance, not in the way it was discovered or proposed as long as scientific reasoning is sound.

In his book “Trouble with Physics”, Lee Smolin talks about the fall-from-grace of String Theory in a very matter-of-fact style.  But Freeman Dyson’s honest admissions about his own wrong judgements go even further to humanize scientists. There aren’t many scientists candidly talking about their own failures. Discussing people like Sophus Lie and Hermann Grassmann, he points out that the science is not all about fashionable personalities or ideas:”.. unfashionable people and unfashionable ideas have often been of decisive importance to the progress of science (p168)”. He also looks at the prejudices the modern education carries with it.  He openly questions the unequivocal value of PhD to do science; he reckons that this rigid practice prevents ordinary, bright Americans choosing science as a career path. He admits failure of his forty year effort to change this attitude of American academia.  Who can be certain that, even without a scheme to lessen the importance of it, given the massive number of degrees being offered every year, the symbolic status of PhD will not naturally go through what G. H. Hardy[1] intended to do by trivializing tripos at Cambridge?   In modern world, let alone the chance of a Freeman Dyson who joined Institute of Advanced Studies with just a Bachelor’s degree, the chance of a Michael Faraday is no greater than zero.

In my opinion, the importance of Freeman Dysons’ book is its attempt to give science a human face; he shows it is not a robotic machine running with clock-work precision; after all it is only another human endeavour.  One recent example to strengthen his case comes from the repetition of the classic sexual selection study conducted by Angus Bateman in early last century. The authors of this new repetition say:

“Here we show that Bateman’s methodology violated an assumption crucial to the reliability of

his inferences: the methodology obscured some observations so that some matings that occurred were not counted, thus overestimating the number of subjects with no mates to an unknown

degree and underestimating the number of subjects with one or more mates, also to an unknown degree. (Gowaty,   Pactricia Adair et al, at


True to the spirit of the above example, Freeman Dyson rather acknowledges science as a self-correcting process[2] and implicitly accepts its contingencies. “When the great innovation appears, it will almost certainly be in a muddled, incomplete, and confusing form. To the discoverer himself it will only half-understood. To everybody else it will be a mystery. For any speculation that does not at first glance look crazy, there is no hope (p106)”.

He  is bold enough not to simply tow the line of mainstream science to be treated as a ‘true believer’; unlike many true-blue scientists, he sees the value of Gaia hypothesis and its relevance to our survival as a species. Every individual, existing on the time scale of years is connected with the “whole web of life on our planet” on the time scale of eons.  To secure the long term survival of the web of life on our planet, we must pay our homage to Gaia, the concept. Science, Religion and everything else in the universe we see through the coloured glass of being human.  Before we fight and self-destruct, it is paramount for us to see all that exists in the planet as components of a greater web. From Eros to Gaia is a book which subtly lifts us towards that higher goal.


[1] Prof. Hardy himself was a great human being with a large heart who was magnanimous enough to read the letters he received from an insignificant Indian clerk who had no recognized qualification in mathematics. If not for Prof. Hardy, the genius of Srinivas Ramanujan might have been lost to the world forever.

[2] For an example, he says on the mystery of missing carbon – the destiny of half the carbon we are burning;

” Either the oceanographers are wrong or the botanists are wrong. Perhaps both are wrong. What we need in order to solve the mystery is more observations (p134).

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Antiquity of Secluding Girls at Puberty

The following is an article I should have written three years ago. Due to various reasons, I have been avoiding penning down my ideas about the antiquity of seclusion in detail. With the realization of its’ importance, I was forced to gather my thoughts in a cohesive way which would help a reader to understand where I was heading in my previous writings. This and all other articles relating to this topic can be found in .pdf form in this website or also at To find the .pdf file of this article please scroll down.

Antiquity of Secluding Girls at Puberty


In this article, it is pointed out that the seclusion of girls at puberty could have existed for more than 40,000 years. The more likely mechanism of diffusion of the ideas around seclusion was the migration of our ancestors not the cultural transmission itself. The customs of Australian Aboriginal people provide a window into the past and some basis for fathoming the antiquity of the girls’ puberty rites.


Seclusion of girls at puberty had been discussed by several authours including Frazer (1993), Benedict (1934) and Richards (1962). However, apart from Frazer, the other authours mainly looked at anthropological importance of this rite of passage. Arachige (2009) discussed the possible significance of these rites as a precursor to modern religions. Even though on its face value this may seem as a long shot, in a previous article Arachige (2010) suggested that there may be a link between the seclusion of girls at puberty and the Paleolithic Venus figurines. If this link is real then, finding the root of religion in the seclusion does not seem far-fetched. As a deduction independent of the antiquity of Venus Figurines, Arachige (2009) also hypothesised that the seclusion rites might have started at least 40,000 years ago. The present article makes a further case for the claim.

Plausible Modes of Spread

As Arachige (2010, 2011) pointed out, the seclusion of girls may take us to the prehistoric Europe. These rites had also been practised in many parts of the world. It is not unnatural to assign the reason for the spread of ideas of seclusion of girls around the world to a form of demic diffusion like of which helped the migratory population from the Middle East to carry their farming practices along to Europe. This mechanism of diffusion seems to be the more accepted way for the spread of farming to Europe from Middle East (Cavalli-Sforza, 2001)[1]. The idea of diffusion is in direct contrast to the view of independent development of customs and concepts proposed by Adolf Bastian in the nineteenth century. Proponents of the independent development view believe that there is a universal psychic unity of mankind which gives rise to “elementary ideas”. This can perhaps lead to “archetypical concepts” such as spirits or reincarnation. However, I believe that this cannot be applied to a cultural practice like seclusion of girls at puberty as the puberty rites of girls are certainly a multitude of key ideas and events such as the first menstruation, need for seclusion including a shade, restricted movements, superstitions such as food taboos or mystical belefs about blood, not seeing males or not being seen by the males and later admittance to normal adult society. All these physical manifestations and mental constructs making the rites around seclusion of girls should come together in a synchronic and coherent structure, which then have to amount to a rather composite archetype. Why should these separate components come together as a universal? At present, there doesn’t seem to have a reasonable explanation. Secondly, it is not easy to see why the ideas around seclusion of girls should be universals. All the cultures, whose members practised seclusion at one time or another, do not have to feel the same about first menstruation; some can be shameful while others rejoice in it as readiness, for example, toward betrothal. One tribe could have secluded the pubescent girl while another tribe could have paraded her around. Thus, if there can exist a unity of theme among all the apparent diversity, it is difficult to assume that these societies made certain choices from a set of all possibilities independently, resulting in a custom with certain similarities across many societies in many lands. Without argument, we have to accept the fact that there can be various nuances and variations, introduced in a diachronic manner as well as across various geographies and cultures, to what originally was a pure form of a custom. This should be the case irrespective of the manner by which a culture acquired a certain practice. As Levi-Strauss pointed out,

Ethnographical observation does not,..,oblige us to choose between…either a plastic mind passively shaped by outside influences; or universal psychological laws that everywhere give rise to and invite the same properties regardless of history and of the particular environment[2]

Thus, there is no sound reason for us to exclude the possibility of diffusion of the practice of seclusion of girls at puberty even though there can be wide-ranging differences between various cultures around the same rudimentary set of ideas. As Levi-Strauss emphasises “each culture is a unique situation..”.

As can be seen from the geographies which Sir James Frazer described in his book, The Golden Bough, with regard to the prevalence of girls’ puberty rites and the elements common across many of these geographies, it is not impossible to believe that there had been a diffusion of these rites from some region. Given the prevalence of these rites in Africa, for an  example, among Zulus[3]  and  the San people[4] whose Khoisan language[5] is among southern African click languages, it is likely that these rites had an African origin.   If we assume that the diffusion of cultural elements of seclusion took place along with the migratory trends of the ancient people, the ancestors of Australian Aborigines had to take it with them on their way to Australian continent at least 40,000 years ago. Genetically, Papua New Guineans are the closest to Australians (Cavalli-Sforza 2001, p144) and thus, should be separated from the common ancestor more than 40,000 years ago (Zimmer 2001, p299; Cavalli-Sforza 2001, p169;Pettitt 2009, p128 ). The date based on Mungo man’s remains is consensually about 40,000+/- 2,000 years and human presence in the Lake Mungo region is 50,000 to 46,000 years old[6]. Let us take the most recent consensus as the reference point for the settlement in Australia. How plausible is the diffusion through migration? Can it just be cultural diffusion which helped spread the seclusion of girls? Despite the fact that it is difficult to deduce the exact mechanism of diffusion, we investigate a few likely scenarios in next parts of this article.

A more recent cultural acquisition?

Given the prevalence of seclusion in Northern Territory, Torres Strait Islands, Cape York region, Papua New Guinea and New Ireland etc (Frazer 1993), one might assume that the seclusion at puberty have come to Australia from the northern neighbours in recent historical times[7]. It may be possible that the people who spoke Austronesian languages[8] brought these rites to New Guinea and Oceania. New Guineans had Austronesian influence marked by the introduction of pigs, chicken etc around 1600 BC[9]. Despite their innate suspicions, it is possible that various Aboriginal communities had exchanged goods and had other trade links over a long period of time[10]. Such exchanges might also have opened up opportunities for cultural contacts including the practice of puberty rites for girls. Around 500 AD, these rites might have gone westward to Madagascar with the Austronesian travellers and from there to continental Africa. However, it is difficult to imagine the influence of a band of travellers to Africa from the island of Madagascar to which Austronesian languages in African region are currently confined. In any case, this is a very unlikely scenario as diffusion of seclusion of girls was evident not only in Africa but also in Americas. More accepted view about spread of modern humans to America was through Bearing Strait about 15,000 to 35,000 years ago. Thus, a recent cultural exchange cannot explain the existence of puberty rites in various parts of the new world which were not known to have been colonized by people speaking Austronesian languages[11], or in the primitive cultures like San culture in Africa.


Lessons from Australia’s first settlers

Australian Aboriginal culture provides a very valuable window into early hunter gatherer societies as the Aboriginal people

had a basically uninterrupted history. There are no signs of any sharp breaks in the economy and technology, no indications that outsiders might have disrupted local patterns of development[12]”.

The same can be assumed to be true for their cultural history as cultural changes are not completely detached from technological and environmental changes. Thus, for our purpose, the Australian Aboriginal people can supply a wealth of information.

Havemeyer (1886) reported

“.. if one turns from physical criteria to their manners and customs it is only to find fresh evidence of their isolation. While their neighbours, the Malays, Papuans and Polynesians, all cultivate the soil, and build substantial huts and houses, the Australian natives do neither. Pottery, common to Malays and Papuans, the bows and arrows of the latter, and the elaborate canoes of all three races, are unknown to the Australians[13]”.

Even though this is a dated statement, apart from Copeland Island in northern Australia where the archaeological site Barlambidj provided some evidence of pottery and glass, on archaeological evidence, the most of Australian continent seemed to have been in isolation from south Asia for almost all of its early existence (Bellwood and Hiscock, 2009)[14]. After the subsidence of the Greater Australian land bridges, in more recent times, the periodic visits of Macassans had a lasting influence on the Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land. The influence of these visitors had been woven into the Aboriginal cultural life in the parts of the land where those contacts prevailed. However, it is doubtful that these interactions and cultural integrations spread across the rest of the continent. Given Australia’s cultural isolation, it is not unreasonable to assume that even though there had been Indonesian and Papuan influence in parts of Australian continent such as Arnhem Land and Cape York ,”these influences did not penetrate into the rest of the continent” (Aborigines in Australian Society, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2001). For an example, absence of agriculture among Australian Aboriginal communities in the mainland Australia, despite having evidence of practice of agriculture by northern neighbours and people in some of Torres Strait Islands, doesn’t lend support to the possibility of cultural diffusion through foreign contact. According to Clarke (2003),

it was the combination of the adaptability [of] Aboriginal hunting and gathering lifestyle and the variable Australian climate, rather than lack of knowledge, that prohibited sedentary food-producing practices spreading south into mainland Australia[15]”.

Even though agriculture or farming is different to a cultural practice like puberty rites, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the influence of geography and climate, and lack of assimilation between the tribes and their new contacts could have restricted the cultural transmission, too. There might have been other reasons as well.

Apart from the restrictions imposed by the rigid marriage system of Aboriginal people, another reason for such differences among Aboriginal tribes can perhaps be found in the following observation:

“The Australian Aborigines in their wild state are not only suspicious of treachery in their neighbours, but often have a superstitious terror of distant tribes, with whose existence they are only acquainted by report[16]”.

There are other reasons, such as the one described below, which also provide explanations. Among hunter-gatherers it was usually the woman who married outside her community.  Thus, the transmission of cultural traits should have happened through such marriages. However, it is questionable that there had been enough critical mass for cultural traits coming from a distant community through maternal lines to be transmitted. This lack of opportunity for such traits to prevail could have arisen from the place of women in Aboriginal society in the pre-colonisation times. The standing of women among some Aboriginal tribes is evident from the following quote:

Mr. Howitt says, “ these  (south-eastern) aborigines, even while counting descent—that is, counting the class names—through the mother, never for a moment feel any doubt, according to my experience, that the children originate solely from the male parent, and only owe their infantine nurture to their mother.” Mr. Howitt also quotes “the remark made to me in several cases, that a woman is only a nurse who takes care of a man’s children for him[17]”.

In such a social environment, a cultural practice brought in by a woman through marriage could only have a very limited opportunity to spread. In general, cultural transmission would facilitate the ideas that (1) help solve environmental problems (2) can be easily memorised and processed by our brains and (3) are conducive to retain and understand variable and difficult ideas which are useful or important[18]. Assuming that the above categories of ideas really influence the transmission of cultural elements, it is difficult to place girls’ puberty rites among them, especially, in a tribal society which in the historical times, seemed to have held women in low esteem.

Belief of Reincarnation

Especially, regarding the penetration of beliefs, we can have a look at the Aboriginal groups in Australia among whose beliefs there are well-documented local variations of interest. Among such local variations was the belief in reincarnation. The belief of perpetual reincarnation of the primal spirits as babies prevalent among Arunta and Kaitish could not be found among south-eastern tribes.[19] With many Australian tribes, the child inherits the totem from the mother or the farther. But for Arunta and Kaitish, the child inherits the totem of the locality where mother became aware of the life of the child. Here, it is important to note that there are two types of totemic categories; social totemism and cult totemism. The above Arunta local totemism, which was also a conception totemism, is a cult totemism, usually having no impact on marriage classes[20]. Social totemism which was used to promote exogamy among Aboriginal Australians[21] makes more sense with patrilineal or matrilineal inheritance.   These Arunta beliefs, apart from their belief in the attachment of such reincarnating spirits to certain haunted stones, were also shared by the tribes in the north and centre. The Euahlayi tribe from north-western New South Wales, with views about spirits not of primal origin, believed in a reincarnation of the uninitiated who died young[22].  Arunta belief system consisting of the acceptance of reincarnation and non-inherited totem was considered by Andrew Lang to be socially more advanced than that of south eastern Aborigines[23]. Sir James Frazer, without discriminating between cult and social totemism, had the totally opposite view about the Arunta practices:

“This [Arunta] mode of determining the totem has all the appearance of extreme antiquity. For it ignores altogether the intercourse of the sexes as the cause of offspring, and further, it ignores the tie of blood on the maternal as well as the paternal side, substituting for it a purely local bond, since the members of a totem stock are merely those who gave the first sign of life in the womb at one or other of certain definite spots[24]”.

Not being an anthropologist, it is not my preference to be judgemental. However, if we pay some attention to the fact that migration of first Australians occurred while the Australian continent had been joined to the Asian neighbours via land bridges which were severed about 9600 BC[25], it would be easy to conceive the antiquity of the central tribes. As the migrants arrived in to the mainland from Australia’s northern neighbours, perhaps, via East Timor, it is very likely that the ancestors of Aboriginal people first came to the northern parts of the continent. They are also believed to have reached western parts of Australia around 50,000-46,000[26] years ago. Then, with a high likelihood, they had to migrate towards the centre to be around Lake Mungo area by 40,000 years ago. Given the nature of their geographic location, the central tribes had a little chance to absorb the influences arising from possible exogenous contacts such as the northern tribes influenced by Asian neighbours or the Cape York tribes whose culture was modified by the New Guinean contact. Thus, it is very probable that Arunta represent a more primitive culture than the northern or coastal cultures. Another important fact about Arunta is their mythical tradition describing female ancestors who were frequently more powerful than the male figures[27]. Tribes in the Great Victorian Desert and the Arnhem Land had similar myths extolling more powerful female ancestors who had controlled the sacred rites. If the ideas of a prehistoric earth goddess and matrilineal descent as discussed by scholars such as J.J. Bachofen and Marija Gimbutas are believable and universal, then myths which we just discussed should point to an era before the dominance of the male in Aboriginal society. On the other hand, for our purpose, we don’t need to find the most primitive tribe whose practices involved seclusion of girls at puberty. If the seclusion was widespread enough, in the relative absence of dominant cultural exchanges, it is very likely that it had a very long history. If Arunta were the followers of most ancient practices, then, they practicing seclusion of girls only vouch to the antiquity of the practice.

Seclusion of girls among Aboriginal Australians

Berndt & Berndt (1988) discussed girls’ puberty rites under “Initiation of Girls” in their highly regarded book The World of the First Australians.

“ Speaking very generally, at the first sign of puberty a girl leaves the main camp, and spends several days in a little hut or shelter some distance away from it. She may have to observe certain food tabus at this time[28]”.

Berndt & Berndt (1988) do not discern the difference between pure puberty rites such as seclusion from other forms of initiation rites such as cutting genitalia of girls and defloration by many men. For our purpose, we are only concerned about the rites involving seclusion[29]. Girls’ puberty rites might have been subject to change over time. Thus, whatever reported by early ethnographers might be the remnants of much wider and elaborate practice. As we discussed earlier, Andrew Lang considered South Eastern tribes as more primitive. An early ethnographer, Howitt (1904), who wrote a book about south eastern tribes of Australia, didn’t pay attention to female pubertal rites. There can be several reasons.  What Hamilton (1987) wrote in a more recent context can still be relevant in a wider meaning too:

“What is apparent from Munn’s account is that men have intruded in various ways into the realm of women’s rituals. These are no longer exclusively and secretly a possession of women…[30]”.

Thus, Howitt (1904) might not have given much importance to these practices in south eastern tribes due to the fact that the male rituals dominated the Aboriginal life and the female rituals were held in conjunction with male rituals. These ethnographers might not have had direct contact with the native women who had more genuine knowledge about these rites and might have considered them or some of them as sacred secrets.

On the other hand, the puberty rites that the early ethnographers reported might have retained all the basic characteristics without much change from their prehistoric origins. Spencer and Gillen (1899) reported seclusion of girls among Central Australian Aborigines. Earlier, we considered Frazer’s point of view according to which Arunta subscribed to a more primitive belief system. If that is the case, the following practice of seclusion of girls among Arunta should be a more primitive or as primitive as the customs practised by other tribes.

“In the Arunta and Ilpirra tribes a girl at the first time of menstruation is taken by her mother to a spot close to, but apart from, the Erlukwirra or women’s camp, near to which no man ever goes. A fire is made and a camp formed by the mother, the girl being told to dig a hole about a foot or eighteen inches deep, over which she sits attended by her own and some other tribal Mia , who provide her with food, one or other of them being always with her, and sleeping by her side at night time. No children of either sex are allowed to go near to her or to speak to her. During the first two days she is supposed to sit over the hole without stirring away; after that she may be taken out by one or other of the old women hunting for food. When the flow ceases she is told to fill in the hole. She now becomes what is called Wunpa , returns to the women’s camp, and shortly afterwards undergoes the rite of Atna-ariltha[31] , and is handed over to the man to whom she has been allotted. She remains Wunpa until such time as her breasts assume the pendent form so characteristic of the native women who have borne one or more children, after which she is spoken of as Arakutja , the name for a fully-grown woman[32].

This cultural practice might have existed in a similarly veiled form in other parts of the land as the following account by Langloh Parker about the Euahlayi Tribe of north western New South Wales reminds us:

“A girl’s initiation into womanhood is as follows. Her granny probably, or some old woman relation, takes her from the big camp into the scrub where they make a bough shade. As soon as this is made, the old woman sets fire to a thick heap of Budtha leaves and makes the girl swallow the smoke. She then bids her lie down in a scooped-out hollow she has made in the earth, saying to her, ‘You are to be made a young woman now. No more must you run about as you please. Here must you stay with me, doing as I say. Then in two moons’ time you shall go and claim your husband, to do for ever what he bids you. You must not sleep as you lie there in the day time, nor must you go to sleep at night until those in the camp are at rest. I will put food ready for you. Honey you must not eat again for four moons. At first streak of day you must get up, and eat the food I have placed for you……..

Girls have told me that they got very tired of being away with only the old woman for so long, and were glad enough when she told them they were to move to a new camp, nearer to the big one, which the women had prepared for them[33]”.

Note that the last paragraph of the above quote. Such inconveniences might have resulted in changes to the original form of pubertal rites.

According to Frazer in The Balder the Beautiful, in Cape York Peninsular area, tribes such as Otati, the tribal people in the western part of Cape York Peninsula and Kia people in eastern Queensland dig a hole or a pit for girls at first menstruation to spend time away from the camp[34]. Uiyumkwi tribe in Red Island, an island of Torres Strait, would keep the girl at her first menstruation in a shallow trench dug in the foreshore. Thus in essence, many Aboriginal groups, including Arunta and Euahlayi, follow the same basic structure and  pattern of responding to puberty. These tribes would seclude the girl, keep in a hollow dug in the ground and provide a temporary shade. Sitting in a hole dug in the ground restrict the girl’s movement. The aboriginal people of the Pennefather River area in the Cape York make the girl sit cross legged while Uiyumkwi girl, as mentioned, lies at full length in the trench. This simply exemplifies the possibility of variations around a fundamental theme among different tribes. Confining the girl to a hole or trench is restricting her movement which the rule of “not to touch the ground” with her feet symbolically achieve[35].  If someone has no feet, that person should be carried around, crawl or stay put. Similarly, if someone is allowed to walk only upon something covering the ground or permitted to walk only without touching the earth; i.e. wearing bark sandals[36], then, the freedom of movement would suffer.   All these scenarios can only result in restricting the movement of the subject. Seclusion in a temporary shade covers the girl from sun in a symbolic gesture and make sure she is not seen by others. Thus, we can still see the elementary manifestation of rules, not seeing the sun and not touching the ground which might have been what the migrants brought with their ancestral roots. On the other hand, these rudimentary manifestations might have also been a result of a cultural adaptation influenced by geographical and climatic realities of the Australian landscape.  It is also possible that, in prehistoric times, the seclusion of girls which had been practised in more elaborate form, had vanished later from cultural memory due to the influence of overbearing male initiation rites which had even absorbed some elements of female ceremonies and the dominance of males in general. Given the accounts in the published material near the dawn of last century, the initiation of boys had a far greater influence in their culture (Spencer and Gillen 2009[37]; Havemeyer 1886). Revealing the secrets of boys’ initiation to women was a punishable offence for South Eastern tribes (Howitt 1904). In essence, it is difficult to determine whether these rites were handed down to recent generations in a form, which was closer to the original or was transformed by the local conditions and cultural constraints to a conformal practice.


It is not unreasonable to assume that the girls’ puberty rites diffused across vast spaces of land with the migration of our ancestors.  Seclusion of girls at puberty is very likely to have reached various parts of Australia with the arrival of ancestors of Australian Aboriginal people at least 40,000 years ago.  Among Australian Aboriginal people, the puberty rites had become part of broader initiation of girls. These rites might have changed over the long history of Aboriginal people. However far back into the past the Aboriginal customs would relate to, the seclusion at puberty, at least, until the times of European encounters, retained many structural elements from the broader practice as described by Sir James Frazer in his monumental work The Golden Bough. Thus, to reach Australia, at least 40,000 years ago, these rites should have started their journey long before. With such an antiquity it is not unlikely that the girls’ puberty rites existed while Paleolithic Europe experienced its creative explosion.


Arachige, D. (2009) The lure of noma: on the elegance of religion, Perth: Ocean Publishing

Arachige, D. (2010) Prehistoric Venuses and Puberty Rite,

Arachige, D. (2011) Witches, Shamans and Girls at Puberty,

Atran, Scott (2002) In Gods we trust: The evolutionary landscape of religion, Oxford University Press, New York

Bellwood, Peter and Peter Hiscock (2009) Holocene Australia and the pacific basin in The Human Past ed. by Chris Scarre, Thames & Hudson, London

Benedict, R. 2005 (1934) The patterns of culture, Mariner Books: New York

Berndt, Ronald. M. and Catherine H. Berndt (1988) The world of the first Australians: Aboriginal Traditional Life: Past and Present, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra

Bowler, James. M. et al (2003) New ages for human occupation and climatic change at Lake Mungo, Australia. Nature 421:837–40. doi:10.1038/nature01383

Brough Smyth, R. (1878) The Aborigines of Victoria, Vol II, Government Printer, London- available at

Cavali-Sforza, Luigi L. (2001) Genes, Peoples & Languages, Penguin

Clarke, Paul (2003) Where the ancestors walked, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW

Diamond, Jared (2005) Guns, Germs and Steel, Vintage

Frazer, James (1993) The golden bough: A study in magic and religion, Ware: Wordsworth Reference

Freud, Sigmund (1918) Totem and Taboo, Moffat, Yard and Company, New York – available at

Gould, Richard. A. (1969) Yiwara, Foragers of the Australian Desert, Chrles Scribner’s Sons, New York

Hamilton, Annette (1987) Dual Social System: Technology, Labour and Womens’ Secret Rites in the Eastern Western Australia in Traditional Aboriginal Society: A Reader ed. by W.H. Edwards, The Macmillan Company of Australia, Melbourne

Havemeyer, Loomis and Albert Galloway Keller (1917)  Ethnography; a partial and preliminary description of the races of man, Press of the Wilson H. Lee Company, New Haven, Conn Kindle edition available at

Howitt, A. W. (1904) The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, Macmillan & Co Ltd, London available at

Lang, Andrew (1905) The Secret of The Totem, Longmans, Green & Co, London- available at

Langloh Parker, K. (1905) The Euahlayi Tribe: A Study of Aboriginal Life in Australia, online at

Levi-Strauss, Claude (1992) Structuralism and Echology in The view from afar, The University of Chicago Press, USA

Lewis-Williams, J. D and M. Biesele (1978) Eland hunting rituals among northern and southern San groups: striking similarities, Africa, 48 (2):117-134

Lewis-Williams, J. D 1980. Remarks on Southern San Religion and Art, Religion in South Africa, Vol.1 (2):19-32

Richards, A. I. (1982) Chisungu: A Girl’s Initiation Ceremony among the Bemba of Zambia, Routledge, London

Pettitt, Paul (2009) The Rise of Modern Humans in The Human Past ed. by Chris Scarre, Thames & Hudson, London

Spencer, Baldwin and F.J. Gillen (1899) The native Tribes of Central Australia, Macmillan, London; Retrieved from

Veeramah, Krishna R.  et al (2012)  An Early Divergence of KhoeSan Ancestors from Those of Other Modern Humans Is Supported by an ABC-Based Analysis of Autosomal Resequencing Data, Mol Biol Evol (2012) 29 (2): 617-630. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msr212




Referencing this article:

Arachige, D. 2012, Antiquity of Secluding Girls at Puberty,


This article can be copied and distributed as it appears above, inclusive of the copyright warnings.








[1] p101-103. Cavali-Sforza, Luigi L. (2001)

[2] p104. Levi-Strauss (1992)

[3] p595. Frazer, J (1993)

[4] Lewis-Williams and Biesele (1978); Lewis-Williams (1980)

[5] Veeramah, Krishna. R. et al (2012) “We find substantial support for a model of an early divergence of KhoeSan ancestors from a proto-Pygmy-non-Pygmy NKs group ?110 thousand years ago..”

[6] Bowler, James. M. et al (2003)

[7] People from South East Asia might have come to Australia bringing the dingo with them between 4000 to 3500 years ago (Clarke, 2003).

[8] Austronesian languages are supposed to have originated in southern China. Then, these languages spread to Taiwan through migration. p280 of Bellwood and Hiscock (2009).

[9] p347. Diamond (2005). According to p277 of Bellwood and Hiscock (2009) pigs were introduced around 1000 BC.

[10] p273. Bellwood and Hiscock (2009)

[11] Austronesian languages have only been traced back to Easter Islands.

[12] p57. Gould (1969)

[13] Havemeyer and Keller (1917) Kindle Locations 1677-1680.

[14] p275. Bellwood and Hiscock (2009)

[15] p186. Clarke (2003)

[16] Brough Smyth. (1878)

[17] in Chapter 11, Mr. Frazer’s Theory of Totemism, Lang, Andrew (1905)

[18] p246, Atran (2002)

[19] “So far, however, I have not been able to find that the Dieri have the Arunta belief in the reincarnation of the ancestor, nor have I found any trace of it in the tribes of South-east Australia” in Chapter 7, Medicine men and Magic, Howitt (1904)

[20] p235-238.  Berndt and Berndt (1988)

[21] p6. Freud (1918)

[22] “..the Euahlayi the spirits are new freshly created beings, not reincarnations of ancestral souls, as among the Arunta” in Chapter VII. Birth-Betrothal-An Aboriginal Girl from Infancy to Womanhood, Langloh Parker (1905)

[23] The south-eastern tribes …. socially less advanced than the Arunta, have not the Arunta nescience of the facts of procreation, a nescience which I regard as merely the consequence and corollary of the Arunta philosophy of reincarnation”  Andrew Lang in the introduction to  Langloh Parker (1905)

[24] Andrew Lang in the introduction to  Langloh Parker (1905)

[25] p265. Bellwood and Hiscock (2009)

[26] Bowler, James. M. et al (2003)

[27] p257.  Berndt and Berndt (1988)

[28] p180.  Berndt and Berndt (1988)

[29] However, it is accepted that counting the seclusion among initiation rites is the more appropriate treatment. Just for the topic of the present article, it was thought to view seclusion in isolation for the ease of grasping the contextual basis.

[30] p47.  Hamilton (1987). This comment is about the ceremonies of Walbiri women which previously performed along endogamous moieties had apparently changed over a period of twenty years to be performed by women related via a male.

[31] It is interesting to note that, according to Spencer and Gillen (1899), Aboriginal myths linked this practice to subincision of men. They also discussed the custom of ‘promoting the growth of the breasts’ under “MEN PAINTING THE BREASTS OF A GIRL WITH FAT AND RED OCHRE AFTER CHARMING IT — TO BE REGARDED AS A CEREMONY OF INITIATION” . Taken together these two customs of stimulating the growth of breasts and the Atna-ariltha, we can speculate that had Arunta had the required skills and had they had imagined capturing them in three-dimension, they would have symbolically represented these two features as big breasts and prominently displayed pubic triangles of Paleolithic Venuses.

[32] Chapter 12, Spencer and Gillen (1899)

[33] Langloh Parker (1905)

[34] Frazer, J. G. in The Balder the Beautiful (Seclusion of girls at puberty in Nothern Australia)

[35] Another way to restrict movement in some societies was to introduce a piece of iron which had to be carried wherever the girl went. In the past, Sri Lankan and South Indian puberty rites dictated such a practice. Another way to restrict movement is to prohibit someone to be alone (see Arachige 2010).

[36] According to p27 of Gould (1969), the Aboriginal women of Gibson Desert used to make bark sandals even in recent times.  The point considered here is that the possibility of wearing such sandals by girls at puberty could have been a practice which was later abandoned and history never recorded.

[37] Chapters 7, 8 and 9 of Spencer and Gillen (1899)

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The Venus: Looking at two recent articles

As I discussed in a previous post, the connection between the seclusion of girls at puberty and Venus figurines is not yet a subject which has found the respectability among  academia. However, it is still a useful exercise to see how these ideas stand against  more acceptable views on the prehistoric figurines. There have been two papers from the last year on Venus figurines, available on the web which I would like to briefly review in this post.

The Venus: Mother or Woman?

Petra Molnar

University of Manitoba

Journal of the University of Manitoba Anthropology Students’ Association, Vol 29 (2011)

I read the above paper titled The Venus: Mother or Woman? with great interest. The author makes a very valid point in a succinct manner about the need for a move away from more traditional viewpoints on the subject.

 In order to unearth the true meanings behind the fascinating Venus figures of the Upper Paleolithic, one must move away from the paradigm which casts the Venuses as fertile mothers, instead considering other possible explanations of their existence. (p. 6)

 Some theories about Palaeolithic Venuses are very limited in scope and only explore the visual qualities which meet the eye. Few theories are rather androcentric and even see the figurines as pornographic. I wholeheartedly agree with the author that Professor McDermott brought a new perspective to this lively debate about what these figurines represent.  However, I feel that we are not doing justice to his theory if we are to treat it as the basis for a gender-centric discussion about the figurines. The theory doesn’t explain why men didn’t make similar objects, as frequently, representing themselves without face or feet despite the fact that among art mobilier from these prehistoric times, many three-dimensional objects have been uncovered. This may mean that these figurines transcended the gender and represented a more symbolic theme. Secondly, there is no way of proving that these women themselves made the figurines or someone else, possibly even a male, created them. Thirdly, we should not look at our prehistory through a glass coloured by our gender-centric biases. In other words, what is important is not rather a non-sexist view but objectivity[1] encompassing a broader explanation. Such explanation should take into account not only obvious features of the figurines but also the possible symbolic meanings attributable to them.

On the other hand, the fertility symbolism associated with Venus figurines may still have some relevance. To see the persistence of this association, we only need to see the next article published by two scientists about which we would discuss in a following section. I, too, believe that there is no direct association between the figurines and fertility. However, there may be some form of relevance of fertility which permeates through another symbolic meaning. For an example, if these figurines were related to puberty rites as the articles previously published in this website hypothesize, the figurines could have ended up serving as protective amulet for pregnant women or wish-conferring talisman for women yearning for children. Even if the figurines had nothing whatsoever to do with puberty, they could still have served for such purposes through storied personage/s probably represented by these figurines. Thus, we cannot be completely sure that these figurines, in no conceivable manner, were associated with fertility as the deep history doesn’t easily divulge her secrets. Whatever opinion which fits most of the known facts about Venuses can be somewhat more plausible than a view explaining only one aspect of their existence.

Another sad facet of anthropological interpretations of the figurines tainted by modern gender-biases is selecting a favoured one from many possibilities. An example for such an instance related to ‘fertility symbolism’ is frequently occurring ideomorphs of ‘pubic triangle’. Are we sure that the prehistoric relatives of ours meant exactly what we think these signs to represent? Can it be a primitive chastity device which bothered both men and women? In the mind of hunter-gatherer man, perhaps, the chastity of his woman might have been more prominent than some life-giving symbolism. In prehistoric cave art, there aren’t many occasions where male organs had been depicted in isolation[2].  Why, then, did these early relatives of ours depict ‘female signs’ in isolation. Treating caves as female by the Paleolithic men and women could be one explanation. Could then these ideomorphs be symbolic of a pledge of chastity from women to men or some supernatural force? We cannot be sure.

There can be so many unanswered, perhaps unanswerable, questions that would naturally come to a critical mind about these arts and artefacts from our distant past. Future archaeological and anthropological researchers may try to further investigate these issues. Unless they rid themselves of prejudicial views, their task may not get any easier.

In the final analysis, as the author of the above article says, first we should unshackle ourselves of more traditional viewpoints if they are burdened with our prejudices.

Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic: Symbols of Fertility or Attractiveness?

Alan F. Dixson and Barnaby J. Dixson

Journal of Anthropology

Volume 2011 (2011), Article ID 569120, 11 pages


 As the title of the paper suggests, two authors try to reaffirm, at least for some of the figurines, the veracity of fertility hypothesis which the previous author hadn’t felt comfortable with. In the following discussion, the attractiveness aspect of these figurines will be overlooked as the proper noun “Venus” for these figurines only serves as a convenient label.

 We suggest three possible roles for Venus figurines. Firstly, a minority of images may have been intended to represent young, sexually attractive and nulliparous adult females. These might truly be considered as “Venuses” in the conventional sense. Secondly, a subset of figurines represented changesin body shape during pregnancy and might be symbols of fertility. Thirdly, the figurines, depictingcorpulent and often middle-aged women, may not have been “Venuses” in any modern or conventional sense. They may, instead, have symbolized the hope for survival and for the attainment of a well-nourished (and thus reproductively successful) maturity, during the harshest period of the major glaciation in Europe.(p.15)


Again, we may be forced to ask why the glaciations and harshness of environment only led to making Venuses not her male counterparts with similar frequency. It is very probable that these Paleolithic men also wished to be well-nourished and, as the driven males through the law of ruthless selfishness of gene are supposed to do, had surely been longing to be reproductively successful.  Dr. Patricia Rice in her insightful analysis first argued to remove the fertility label attached to these figurines by pointing out the womanhood celebrated by these figurines[3]. Instead of expert opinions that Dr. Rice relied on, the study in focus used contemporary university students to evaluate the age category and attractiveness of the figurines. One problem with such analyses is the loss of symbolic meanings or other plausible cultural and phenomenological nuances associated with the figurines.

Moreover, how certain are we that these figurines represent the physical forms of Paleolithic women, made to scale and betraying their age? How crucial is the facial features in determining the age of a person from the physical appearance? Why should we expect these women to be average persons with body forms conforming to every other woman of a perceived age? For an example, couldn’t there be a youth with a corpulent body shape? What is the likelihood of these figurines representing some storied personage or personages from these prehistoric periods?

The article clearly states that there can be more than one reason for the existence of Venus figurines. This repeats a very strong point which many authors on this subject expressed in different ways by proposing multitude of hypotheses. With one such view, discussed elsewhere in this web site, it is argued that these figurines were associated with the seclusion of girls at puberty. Can this hypothesis stand the conclusions of the authors of the article in focus? I believe it can. The seclusion of girls at puberty hypothesis attempts to neither assign an age to the women who were represented by these figurines, nor make it the exclusive interpretation for all such figurines. It only looks at the symbolic meaning of these figurines and accepts that there can be other figurines, not falling within the groups of figurines which are faceless and feetless, made for different purposes. The hypothesis can easily explain many of the characteristics of group of Paleolithic Venuses showing neither facial features nor feet. It can account for their obese looks and apparent incisions. It is also very widely accepted that red ochre found on some figurines can result from their association with puberty rites. The diffusion of puberty rites across the globe, too, should not be ignored. This may indicate a history of, at least, 40000 years. This sort of antiquity can comfortably sit within the prehistoric setting of  Venuses. It can even merge with the widely-accepted altered-state-of-consciousness hypothesis about the origin of cave art signalling the Creative Explosion. With all these compelling reasons, if we still choose to ignore it, we should have some sound reasons to do so.

[1] The connection between the views on Venuses and our religiosity or lack of it expressed in this website is only secondary to the author’s strong belief in the connection between puberty rites and the symbolism encompassing prehistoric Venus figurines.

[2] See p.147 of Cave Art by Jean Clottes,Phaidon,2011

[3] Prehistoric Venuses: Symbols of Motherhood or Womanhood? Journal of Anthropological Research, 37(4), 1981

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A short note on Remembered Present and failures of our reasoning

A recent incident that had a profound impact on me forced my hand to write the following post. To borrow a phrase from a well-known writer, I am trespassing, as I often do, on the territories of the specialists.  However, this is just another commentary on a very common phenomenon and my musings are more hypothetical in nature.  In a previous post, the implications of ‘rule-of-thumb logic’ in our daily affairs were discussed. Some of the thoughts expressed in that article can be made more relevant with the incidents about to be discussed here.

A few weeks ago, I was driving alone in heavy rain around 9 o’clock at night. The traffic was almost non-existent and lane markings were hardly visible. There was a service road next to the main road and at a distance a vehicle was coming in my direction on the service road which is situated next to a main road.  Even though the roads were familiar, my mind took a sudden decision and made me drive towards nature strip dividing the service road and the main road. In haste, my mind perceived the service road as the other side of a divided road with a nature strip in the middle and for a split moment, I was on the wrong side of an empty main road.

Another such incident was recounted by a friend. One day she parked her car in the car park at a shopping centre very familiar to her. After making her purchases she walked back towards where she parked her car. With the remote controller, she unlocked the car which was of same colour as hers and very similar in appearance. She didn’t notice the unlock indicators flashing. After opening the door she sat in the driver’s seat and was about to adjust the mirror before she noticed an unfamiliar girl in the back seat fully immersed in her texting.  Then she realised that her car had been parked next to the one she got in.

These are only a few incidents which I could recall even though such situations are very common in our daily existence. Following Prof. Gerald Edelman’s selectionist viewpoint, we can find similar situations in other environments, too.  An animal sensing a change in its surroundings may decide to flee even when there is no obvious danger. The flight[1] was executed by the previous value driven behaviours linking a conscious scene via remembered present. However, the linking should be done via logical deduction.   I find them to be very good examples of the way in which ‘rule-of-thumb’ logic[2] operates. In the light of issues like binding problem, re-entry etc., the mechanisms involved are obviously more complicated than what they are made out to be in this article. However, I would still like to reflect on the connection between the sensory inputs and reality in reference to our logical systems.

When our memory looks through stacks of ‘visuals’ to figure out the best fit for the current scenario or the remembered present, it seems natural to use rule-of-thumb logic. These ‘visuals’, at least some of them, can be thought of as somewhat similar to ‘Archetypes’, vague in outline but specific enough to identify itself with the salient features in its form. The information about the current scenario would come in as a stream of ‘visuals’ which would be matched to the visuals from memory. But this is only done using the ‘rule-of-thumb’ logic resulting in some errors or false signals which can be viewed in a setting of Gestalt psychology. The following is a simple model which binds together the above elements we discussed. Later, we will focus on how Gestalt aspect of the model comes about.

{ Memory (‘visuals’) >>>>>>> matching with rule-of-thumb logic <<<<<<<< Sensory Inputs} => Reality

As Gestalt implies when we match the sensory inputs with the memory, we grab the reality as a whole without always paying enough attention to the specific details which are determined by the nature of the whole. Through Prof. Benjamin Libet’s and other neuroscientist’s work we know that our subliminal processes play a part larger than we sense in our daily life. However, sometimes these subliminal pathways fail to tick off all the boxes while the matching happens resulting in distorted reality. That is when the ‘rule-of-thumb logic’ fails. We can visualise this with a two complicated jig-saw puzzle pieces. Sometimes, if we get few key contours of the pieces right, we can easily put them together. If our logic, perhaps, acting subliminally, miss a contour in the process, the two pieces wouldn’t fit.

With a broader interpretation we may place the above incidents within the framework of figure-ground perception. It could be reasonable to assume that determining what we see as figure or ground is done by the ‘rule-of-thumb’ logic using ‘visuals’ in our memory. If the logic used is more advanced than what is perceived as ‘rule-of-thumb logic’, there would be even less chance of false alarms. As the error management theory predicts, there is a selective bias towards committing less costly errors. For the alert animal above-mentioned, a false positive is far less costly than giving up its life. However, for our day-to-day decision making process, such a sophisticated biological framework cannot be expected to operate for the simple reason that we make umpteenth number of decisions in a day. Each one of these scenarios might not have been weighed in to see how costly an erroneous decision would be.

My main point in this article is about our routine decision making processes are largely governed by ‘rule-of-thumb logic’. This logical process may be far more pervasive than meets eye and may even be embedded in our biology. When driving a car we may misjudge the space that should be allowed for an incoming vehicle on an unmarked road. That judgement is based on our rule-of-thumb reasoning. Our decisions and conclusions that are arrived at by such logic are not illogical given our past experience or memories. However, our decisions based on this ‘inferior’ logic cannot be fool-proof and can lead to distorted perception of reality. For an example, if we extrapolate the same logic for complex issues that we face we can see how we increase our probability of making ‘wrong’ decisions. Based on superficial similarities, we may conclude and predict. As a certain star always becomes visible on the horizon before the start of the yearly rainy season, there is a connection between the rainy season and the rising of star; thus, given rainy season’s impact on us, we may also conclude that stars can foretell human conditions as well. Even though jig-saw pieces are not coming together, the rule-of-thumb logic can force a match. Our ingrained tendency to see things in the light of this simple logic, sometimes, via a subliminal process which we may call intuition, might have roots in our biological tendency to use this rule-of-thumb reasoning for many ‘automatic’ decision making processes.

[1] The same mechanism leading to minimally counter-intuitive concepts is invoked by some researchers to find the origin of our religiosity.  If I accept Prof. Edelman’s version, as I like to do, the questions I need to pose myself are; how did our ancestors acquire memory patterns about ghosts? What was the evolutionary advantage of replacing false alarms with even more false concepts which may become costly in the end?

[2] The rule-of-thumb logic is in some sense similar to the heuristics and biases idea of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. However, the rule-of-thumb logic assumes we make the best judgement under circumstances irrespective of the fact that it would be judged differently by others, on reflection or under different circumstances. If our daily judgements are often wrong, we have to be dead as soon as we in our childhood become independent of parental oversight. Similarly, judgement is not judged under this logic. Furthermore, this reasoning assumes no self-interest bias exists.

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