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> Or is it solely a case of "this is how we've always done it"?

Mostly, yes, because the GitHub repository is a very recent addition
in the history of Lua.

> Also, how do you assemble the distribution tarballs? By hand or with a script?

A combination of several Makefiles to get the latest sources, check
that they build, build the html documentation, including the table of
contents and index, package tests, make diff pages, copy to,
fix index.html in, make and post announcement message.
All this is locally automated but requires manual checking. Not a lot
of work. If everything goes well, it takes 10 minutes or so. It's not
pretty after 25+ years but manual checking does give some quality