New Genetic and Linguistic Analyses Show Ancient Human Influence on Baobab Evolution and Distribution in Australia

Haripriya Rangan, Karen L. Bell, David A. Baum, Rachael Fowler, Patrick McConvell, Thomas Saunders, Stef Spronck, Christian A. Kull, Daniel J. Murphy

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This study investigates the role of human agency in the gene flow and geographical distribution of the Australian baobab, Adansonia gregorii. The genus Adansonia is a charismatic tree endemic to Africa, Madagascar, and northwest Australia that has long been valued by humans for its multiple uses. The distribution of genetic variation in baobabs in Africa has been partially attributed to human-mediated dispersal over millennia, but this relationship has never been investigated for the Australian species. We combined genetic and linguistic data to analyse geographic patterns of gene flow and movement of word-forms for A. gregorii in the Aboriginal languages of northwest Australia. Comprehensive assessment of genetic diversity showed weak geographic structure and high gene flow. Of potential dispersal vectors, humans were identified as most likely to have enabled gene flow across biogeographic barriers in northwest Australia. Genetic-linguistic analysis demonstrated congruence of gene flow patterns and directional movement of Aboriginal loanwords for A. gregorii. These findings, along with previous archaeobotanical evidence from the Late Pleistocene and Holocene, suggest that ancient humans significantly influenced the geographic distribution of Adansonia in northwest Australia.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPLoS One
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2015
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed

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