Waves of Words

Mapping and modelling the history of Australia’s Asia-Pacific ties

This project aims to determine the extent and nature of ancient contact relationships between first peoples of Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. The research design includes two complementary sets of methods:

  1. targeted comparative linguistic and anthropological research into shared linguistic features and cultural practices,
  2. data-driven digital modelling of linguistic, anthropological and archaeological evidence.

As a result, we also expect to discover what kinds of social configurations underlie different linguistic outcomes in language contact situations and to improve our understanding of the relationship between language change and sociocultural change, which will have significant impact on linguistic and anthropological theory.

Read the full project description here

Map of some initial linguistic data

Project members

Regions of particular interest

  • Sulawesi
  • The Solomon Islands
  • Vanuatu
  • Torres Strait Islands
  • Cape York
  • Arnhem Land
  • The southern tip of Papua New Guinea
  • New Caledonia

Particular topics of interest currently include

  • Words and practices relating to taboo
  • Yams, taro, boabs, bananas
  • Plants with ritual or ceremonial significance
  • Social organisation (kinship, chieftainship, land tenure, etc)
  • Simulation of pre-colonial travel times
  • Mapping of thickly layered data sources from different disciplines
  • Immersive visual analytics

Recent and upcoming events

  • A workshop on the topic of tabu was held in 2018 and papers from this workshop are currently in preparation
  • A workshop, 'Crossing the Sea' was held in 2018 on evidence for pre-colonial contacts between Australia and the Asia-Pacific region.
  • A workshop on Indigenous Mapping was held in Sydney in 2019.
  • There will be at least one design-focused workshop in Sydney in 2020 to bring in more First Peoples from Australia and the Pacific who would like to be involved in the project. Please get in touch if you are interested.

Software outputs

Software developed for the project is available at the Waves of Words github repository.

At this stage this includes:

  • a Virtual Reality platform for linking different kinds of geolocated humanities data, along with results of some initial experiments with simulation of canoe travel times, warping of space to represent relationships in the data, and gesture-based interaction.
  • some scripts for using a downloaded version of the CLIC colexifications database
  • some machine learning experiments in detecting documents that contain words from Pacific or Aboriginal languages in Trove.
  • a variety of maps using Leaflet and Google Sheets for quick and dirty visualisation of the distribution of linguistic terms or features


Published outputs so far include:

Several further papers are under review.


Please contact Rachel Hendery for more information on any of the above.