All of the indigenous languages spoken by Australia's Aboriginal peoples branched out from one language that was spoken in a small area in northern Australia around 10,000 years ago, new research has suggested
Around 250 distinct indigenous languages were spoken in Australia when European explorers first landed in the continent in the late 18th century.
Anthropologists had long speculated that Australia was significantly more linguistically diverse than places like Europe, as there was no evidence to suggest that the indigenous languages emerged from a common source.
However, a three-year study of the Aboriginal languages by researchers from the University of Newcastle and Western Sydney University has now revealed that they are derived from one language: Proto-Australian.
Researchers came to this conclusion after unearthing recurrent similarities between languages that were not in geographic contact.
"We discovered that the sounds of words we compared showed recurrent systematic differences and similarities across a set of languages that are spread out in a geographically discontinuous way – which makes it very unlikely that they are the result of chance or language contact," said Robert Mailhammer from Western Sydney University.
"While a multitude of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were spoken at the time of European settlement, the findings also imply that indigenous Australian languages only spread after the end of the last ice age, some 10,000-12,000 years ago."
The language family is believed to have spread from a small area in northern Australia through population movement.
Australia's Aboriginal peoples are believed to be the world's oldest continuous civilization, with archaeological records suggesting that they have been living in the continent for at least 65,000 years.
"This is the first demonstration that all Australian languages are part of the same language family," said historical linguist Mark Harvey.
"With further interdisciplinary research, this new linguistic evidence is likely to give us a more precise reconstruction of Australian prehistory from what is currently known."
The findings are published in the linguistics journal Diachronica.