River names and settlement patterns in Amazonia and Australia: A hypothesis

Ever since I was very young, I’ve had an inordinate fondness for maps. I remember when I was five years old or so drawing maps of imaginary islands and continents, which often included areas that I scrupulously left blank — unexplored areas! I could even, if I so chose, trace the fact that I’m an Amazonian anthropological linguist to a chance encounter with a map of South America as an undergraduate. But getting closer to the point of this post, my present living room has quite a number of maps on its walls, including maps of various parts of Amazonia, as you might expect, and perhaps more surprisingly, an ethnolinguistic map of Australia, which I received as a present from my mother, who now lives in Australia and correctly guessed that a present that combined maps with linguistics would be a welcome gift indeed.

Gazing at this map earlier today I noticed an interesting difference between my Amazonian and Australian maps: the names of rivers on my Amazonian map tend to be drawn from indigenous South American languages, while the river names on my Australian map tend to be English ones. After pondering this difference for a few minutes I generated a hypothesis regarding why the colonial powers who were ultimately responsible for the names that appear on these maps pursued quite different river-naming strategies. Being quite ignorant of Australian ethnography, I have no idea if this is true, but my explanation is the following: Amazonia is replete with indigenous riverine indigenous peoples, while Australia, I’m guessing, is not. Moreover, the exploration of Amazonia by Europeans was carried out in large part via river travel, while the exploration of Australia, if memory serves, was largely carried out overland. If this is basically correct, then, Europeans in Amazonia were constantly running into indigenous peoples living on the rivers, so that European interlopers had ample opportunity to learn indigenous river names, and had no strong reason to invent their own (which did not, of course, prevent them from doing so from time to time). In Australia, my theory goes, Europeans encountered rivers in their overland travels from time to time, but did not encounter large indigenous populations living by the rivers who informed those European interlopers about what the rivers in question should be called, leaving Europeans to invent their own river names.

A little research about Australian Aboriginal groups might settle the answer, but I am deliberately avoiding carrying out this research, for two reasons. First, I’m lazy about doing any research outside of South America. Second, and more significantly, I’m curious if it is possible, based solely on colonial river naming practices, to infer something about Australian Aboriginal settlement patterns.

There are at least two obvious ways to evaluate this hypothesis. One way involves a lot of tedious work reading historical documents, and if anyone has already done this, please let me know. Another way, which involves a lot less work, involves looking at an areal anomaly in terms of the Anglo-centric Australian river naming pattern. At least on my map, there is a cluster of river names of probable Aboriginal origin (to my uninformed eye) in the upper Darling River watershed and some adjacent regions. If the groups living in this area were atypical for Australia in being riverine peoples, then we would have a way to evaluate, within Australia itself, the correlation between the presence of riverine indigenous peoples and the greater tendency for colonial powers to adopt indigenous river names.

So, do the facts support this off-the-cuff hypothesis? (If none of you, dear readers, decide to do my hard work for me, I’ll resort to the next best thing — I’ll pester my Australianist colleagues.)

4 thoughts on “River names and settlement patterns in Amazonia and Australia: A hypothesis

  1. It sounds extremely plausible to me (sorry, I’m no help on evidence-gathering, although I have some grad students looking for term paper topics…). If an ecological-demographic explanation for toponym patterns holds true in Amazonia and Australia, I would also wonder if it holds true in some parts of North America (and elsewhere) but not in others. I’m also reminded of Cecil Brown’s work on lexical acculturation, which relies heavily on patterns of cultural contact as constraints on loanword diffusion.

    • Thanks for the Cecil Brown reference, I looked up his book on lexical acculturation, and its actually extremely relevant to something else I’m starting work on.

      As for the broader applicability of this idea, it should be pretty high, since when you strip my proposal down to its basics, it’s pretty banal, really: all other things being equal, when newcomers arrive in some region, they are likely adopt toponyms employed by people already living there. And the facts (if they are indeed facts) about settlement patterns and exploration routes just work to make sure that the conditions leading to toponym adoption are met.

      As for those hungry grad students, they are more than welcome to tackle this question if it interests them :).

  2. So in Amazonia, river names look indigenous, while in Australia, they look English. In Amazonia, you say, exploration was largely carried out by river travel, while in Australia, exploration was largely overland. Then in Amazonia, you say, there are lots of riverine peoples; whereas in Australia, you presume, these are less populations living by the rivers.

    It seems that the mode of exploration is a confounding variable. Surely if you’re exploring overland you’re going to meet less riverine peoples (even if they’re there) and hence you’re not going to adopt their terms.

    Anyway, I’m no help on evidence-gathering either. I’m also not going to suggest that it’s a good idea to look at Africa for another place to test the hypothesis. It’s not. The map of Africa is a mess, the modes of exploration have been mixed, and there are too many other variables involved.

    • Thanks for your comments, Mark. Let me begin by saying that my claims about Australia need to be taken with a grain of salt — I’m mostly speculating based on some vague memories, and hoping that someone more knowledgeable will come along to set me straight. But your point about confounding variables is a really good one; indeed, the manner of exploration could trump settlement pattern as a factor in naming practices, and its hard to know without doing lots of work, which is what I’m trying to avoid in the first place :).

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