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

Upcoming events

  • A special issue of Oceania on the topic of tabu is currently in preparation. Draft papers are due by the end of May.
  • A workshop, 'Crossing the Sea' will be held in October at ANU where participants are invited to present papers (drafts to be circulated in advance) on evidence for pre-colonial contacts between Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. We welcome papers from a linguistic, anthropological, archaeological, historical or interdisciplinary perspective.

Positions available (please inquire)

  • Fully funded PhD position - available immediately
  • Digital Humanities-focused postdoctoral position - 2019

PhD position information

Fully funded PhD position in Digital Humanities available (with focus on the pre-history of Oceania). Fee waiver and scholarship included.

Application deadline May 20 2018

The Digital Humanities Research Group at Western Sydney University, Australia, has recently received a national research grant (ARC Discovery): ‘Waves of Words: Mapping and Modelling Australia’s Pacific Past’ (DP180100893). The primary aim of this project is to understand Australia’s prehistory as a networked agent in a complex web of Asia-Pacific interaction. In order to achieve this, we aim to determine the extent and nature of early relationships between first peoples of Australia and the rest of Oceania by bringing together, comparing, and modelling the linguistic, anthropological and archaeological evidence.

As a result of this research we also aim to:

  • discover what kinds of social configurations underlie different linguistic outcomes in language contact situations; and
  • improve our understanding of the relationship between language change and socio-cultural change and feed this back into improvements to linguistic and anthropological theory.
  • develop a toolkit of methods and software for integrating linguistic, anthropological and archaeological data that can be used in other regions as well.

The PhD position is intended to take on a self-contained subproject within this larger scope, with some flexibility for the student’s own research interests. Examples of possible subprojects include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Semantic maps for Wanderw√∂rter in Oceania
  • Agent-based modelling of population interactions in the early Pacific (or pre-colonial Australia)
  • Development of an interdisciplinary data-visualisation platform for linguistics, anthropology and archaeology
  • Integration of time-based data visualisation into geographical platforms
  • 3D/Virtual Reality humanities data visualisation
  • Text mining and automatic extraction of structured data from humanities publications

If a technical topic such as one of the above is chosen, the PhD project may include data from the broad area of interest to the ARC project (Oceania). Alternatively, a student with a stronger background in linguistics, anthropology or archaeology may wish to focus on a particular region that is of interest for the relationship between Australia and the Pacific (the Torres Islands, the relationship between Vanuatu and Australia, between PNG and Australia, or between parts of Indonesia and Australia (e.g. Sulawesi and/or Maluku) for example), or on a subset of the thematic domains that are of interest, e.g. plants and animals, material culture (e.g. canoes, fish hooks, and other tools), social structures (chieftainship, kinship, religion).

The student will be supervised by Associate Professor Rachel Hendery (Digital Humanities Research Group) and Professor Simeon Simoff (School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics).

For further context, please read the full project description. To apply, please send a CV, together with a short proposal for your project (1-2 pages) preferably by May 11, 2018 (or contact us to request a later date). We will then invite shortlisted candidates to submit a more detailed proposal and attend an interview (which may be via teleconference).


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