Waka ya Wakaleo

Today’s post is by guest blogger David Nash who is an expert on central Australian languages like Warlpiri, and who has also written about Aboriginal languages more generally, including the language of Sydney.


The Dieri word waka ‘small’ was introduced in last March’s post on doubling. It was nice to find that the word was embraced some forty years ago by palaeontologists, who study fossils, when they coined the term Wakaleo to name an extinct genus of marsupial carnivore.

The genus name was formed to parallel the most similar genus that had already been described called Thylacoleo (Owen 1859). That name had been coined from the Greek word θύλακος thulakos meaning ‘pouch’ (as in thylacine, the recently extinct Tasmanian tiger), and the Latin word leo meaning ‘lion’.

The fossil was found in Dieri country near Lake Ngapakaldi (in Dieri ngapa ‘water’ and kaldri ‘salty’), in the Tirari Desert between the Birdsville Track and Lake Eyre (northeast South Australia). Wakaleo was the size of a dog, smaller than Thylacoleo, so waka was appropriately used to form the name. The species name of W. oldfieldi commemorates the family of Bryan Oldfield who was the owner of nearby Etadunna Station.

The original fossil (called the ‘type specimen’) was found in 1971 and is kept at the South Australian Museum. Presumably someone there provided the Dieri word for Clemens and Plane who described it in an article published in 1974. As far as I know it was the first time a word from an Australian language (other than a placename) was used in the scientific name of a fossil taxon.

Here is a picture of the Wakaleo oldfieldi fossil jawbone (photo by S. Morton from here)


And this is what scientists think Wakaleo may have looked like: (photo from the Australian Museum):


WA Clemens and M Plane. 1974. Mid-Tertiary Thylacoleonidae (Marsupialia, Mammalia). Journal of Paleontology 48.4(July), 653-660. (The full article is online here but you need a library subscription to view it all.)

Postscript by Peter Austin, added 6th July 2014

It turns out that Wakaleo is also the name of a website that was set up by paleontolgists from the University of Queensland to present information about ancient fossils found in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in north-west Queensland. As the About page on the website says, it aims “to provide news and faunal information about Riversleigh World Heritage Area. News will include stories about the latest or upcoming fieldwork, as well as the latest research published in scientific journals”.