Demic and cultural factors in the spread of Austronesian languages in Southeast Asia

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As someone deeply interested in the languages of Taiwan, I have long been preoccupied by the origins and expansion of Austronesian on the island circa six millennia ago and its spread from there around four thousand years ago throughout Southeast Asia, to Oceania and as far as Madagascar.  This new research article from PLOS ONE sheds light on how a part of that process occurred.

"Investigating Demic versus Cultural Diffusion and Sex Bias in the Spread of Austronesian Languages in Vietnam." Thao, Dinh Huong et al. PLOS ONE 19, no. 6 (June 17, 2024): e0304964. 


Austronesian (AN) is the second-largest language family in the world, particularly widespread in Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) and Oceania. In Mainland Southeast Asia (MSEA), groups speaking these languages are concentrated in the highlands of Vietnam. However, our knowledge of the spread of AN-speaking populations in MSEA remains limited; in particular, it is not clear if AN languages were spread by demic or cultural diffusion. In this study, we present and analyze new data consisting of complete mitogenomes from 369 individuals and 847 Y-chromosomal single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) from 170 individuals from all five Vietnamese Austronesian groups (VN-AN) and five neighboring Vietnamese Austroasiatic groups (VN-AA). We found genetic signals consistent with matrilocality in some, but not all, of the VN-AN groups. Population affinity analyses indicated connections between the AN-speaking Giarai and certain Taiwanese AN groups (Rukai, Paiwan, and Bunun). However, overall, there were closer genetic affinities between VN-AN groups and neighboring VN-AA groups, suggesting language shifts. Our study provides insights into the genetic structure of AN-speaking communities in MSEA, characterized by some contact with Taiwan and language shift in neighboring groups, indicating that the expansion of AN speakers in MSEA was a combination of cultural and demic diffusion.


…our survey of the mtDNA and MSY relationships of all of the extant VN-AN groups, along with their AA neighbors, illustrates a complex history of migrations as well as cultural diffusion via language shifts and contact, resulting in the spread of AN languages across Vietnam. We see more or less the same picture for both mtDNA and the MSY, suggesting little sex bias in this process (consistent with a primary role for cultural diffusion); however, we caution that our inferences based on the MSY are more limited than for mtDNA, due to the underlying nature of the data. More in-depth studies of MSY variation, as well as genome-wide data, will provide a more holistic picture of the history of AN groups in Vietnam.

Selected readings

[h.t. Edward M. McClure]


  1. AntC said,

    June 22, 2024 @ 5:11 pm

    Syncronicity: ‘Three Indigenous Tribes, Three Flavors’ opens in Kaohsiung

    Maolin District is the least populated district in Kaohsiung City. However, it boasts a rich ecological landscape and stories from the three Indigenous tribes that live there, the Teldreka, Oponoho, and Kongdavang tribes.

    Those tribes speak the Rukai language [see wp]

    Rukai is notable for its distinct grammatical voice system among the Formosan languages. …
    Paul Jen-kuei Li considers Rukai to be the first language to have split from the Proto-Austronesian language. …
    Rukai is unique for being the only Formosan language without a focus system.

    In Mandarin

    (There's also a press release from the museum, but the link is not working for me.)

  2. AntC said,

    June 27, 2024 @ 4:46 am

    Taiwan Amis raft replica sails to Green Island and back

    Participants attempt to discover how Austronesian peoples set out from Taiwan

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