The settler-colonial Australia that I grew up in was astonishingly – you’d have to say deliberately – ignorant about the land it had forcibly occupied less than 200 years before. That I was taught nothing of Aboriginal history beyond some childish drawings of pictures of didgeridoos and boomerangs – and the simplistic ‘fact’ that these were a ‘Stone Age’ people who’d been in Australia only a few thousand years – largely reflected the general state of public, and academic, knowledge.
It is really only in the last 20 years that has started to change. At the same time, our understanding of the complex niche our species and close cousins occupy on this planet has exploded and become considerably, and compellingly, complicated.
There’s something profoundly revolutionary about understanding that it was really only in the blink of an eye, in terms of geological time, that we shared this planet with multiple other species of human. These include the so-called ‘hobbits’, the mysterious, still hotly debated Homo floresiensis found on the Indonesian island of Flores, who lived as recently as 12,000 years ago, and also their neighbours and probably near relatives Homo luzonensis, found only three years ago.
The appropriation of deep time
In the second edition of Australia’s Aboriginal Past: A Global Perspective, Murray Johnson tells in accessible, patient prose, the story of both our rediscovery of the human past, and the vastly longer story of the supercontinent of Sahul (what is now Australia, Papua New Guinea and Micronesia), its northern neighbours, and what we do, and don’t know, about their settlement by successive waves of hominids, including Homo sapiens sapiens.
If I sometimes got a little impatient with the retelling of rather familiar tales such as that of Piltdown Man, it is useful to see how the debate about human origins has always fitted within deeply political, contested and uncertain frames. And great to know that perhaps the world’s first known ‘archaeological museum’ was founded by Bel-Shalti-Nannar, high priestess of Ur, around 500BC.
Johnson’s approach to the great continuing controversies of today – some displaying more than a touch of Piltdown-style bad faith plus the blatant exercise of scientific egos and nationalism, but often just reflecting the scant nature of the evidence – is reassuringly even-handed. It is also sensible; some new discovery could rewrite the whole story tomorrow. And there’s great risk – as in the question about whether H. floresiensis or their relatives might have made it to Australia – that some claims could be used by bad faith political actors.
Migrations out of Africa
That doesn’t take away the wonder of the gradual uncovering – Mungo Lady’s discovery in 1969 marking the start of the entire field – of the extraordinarily long temporal expanse of Aboriginal settlement and the development of its civilisations regardless of how much still remains unknown of them. Their exact arrival date is uncertain – circa 50,000 years ago is certain (and the earliest evidence – if it survives – would now be underwater – where 20% of the Australian landmass disappeared between 12,000 and 6,000 years ago).
By 35,000 years ago Aboriginal people had reached the south-west of Tasmania, making them the most southerly-dwelling people on the planet (they relied particularly on the meat of the red-necked wallaby, and fascinatingly there’s evidence they mostly hunted the young or aged animals – quite possibly a conservation strategy by minimising impact on reproduction rates).
The 50,000 years date squares with theories that the first modern humans exited Africa around 70,000 years ago, although of course that doesn’t cover other species (one fascinating study concluded there was a marked change in vegetation around 130,000 years ago that can’t be explained by climate patterns).
The arrival of ancient mariners
What is clear is that Aboriginal settlement endured for the bulk of its history in the intensely difficult period of the Pleistocene, marked by at least 20 climatic cycles of ice and heat, and changes in sea level of 100 metres, before the remarkable stability of the Holocene began around 11,700 years ago. At times in the Pleistocene, the supercontinents Sahul and Sunda came close to joining, but as the Wallace line shows, there was also a sea voyage between them that humans had to navigate in a deliberate and planned way. An isolated individual might be washed up on the shore but could not form a new population.
Johnson sets out theories about how the entire continent came to be populated – and the dating shows it must have been remarkably quickly, either by hopping around the coast (coastal colonisation), spreading broadly in pursuit of populations of megafauna declining as it was hunted out (fast tracker), or clearly his favourite: progressing through favourable ecosystems and bypassing the difficult deserts (refuge, corridor and barrier).
Major human firsts
As in other regions of the world, as captured in the brilliant The Dawn of Everything, Australian archaeology is gradually starting to overcome the arrogant, ethnocentric theory that humans have been steadily progressing and depend on passing through fixed stages of economic and social development. Johnson notes that the idea that Aboriginal cultures could only react to changing environmental conditions, rather than create their own, is being strongly challenged.
He cites the fascinating example of an extensive eel fishery that was developed in south-western Victoria. Based on an extensive network of canals and traps, which sometimes involved digging through solid basalt bedrock, it enabled adult eels to migrate downstream and elvers to access the complex. Archaeologists have concluded it would have taken considerable organised labour to construct, but was so sophisticated it could be operated year-round to ensure a permanent supply of eels by fewer than 20 people.
Nearby trees still have heart-shaped cavities that Australia’s modern Aboriginal community calls ‘cooking trees’. Eel oil is indeed found within them – from a widescale practice of smoking for preservation, which produced a highly tradeable, durable product.
Firsts, of course, imply rather pointless competition, but it is useful to know that there are major human ‘firsts’ in our current state of knowledge that these Aboriginal societies can count. Whatever might be discovered in the future, they’ll always remain very early: cremation funerals (at least 40,000 years ago) and deep mining (for flint, 34,000 years ago).
Johnson divides his consideration of the Aboriginal lands into two, the Pleistocene, a time of limited innovation and change, and the Holocene, a time of rapid innovation, growth and experimentation. I’m a little hesitant about that – ideas of progress are deeply embedded in intellectual fallacy, and there’s an obvious issue of preservation of evidence from the earlier period – but nonetheless it is a useful frame for understanding.
All our yesterdays
So why should this book be of particular interest to a British audience?
Certainly it has attracted attention in Australia – as evidenced by the second edition. There’s a growing push there to understand the recent historical past, to get the victims of the Frontier Wars recognised on the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. That has to be informed by an understanding of just what a deep, wonderful history was sundered apart in that genocide, how much knowledge and understanding has been lost from the world’s longest continuous period of cultural development.
The genocide was driven from what even as a child I was taught to call the ‘home country’. And the exploitation, the neo-colonialism, the extraction, still goes on, as most recently highlighted by the behaviour of Anglo-American conglomerate Rio Tinto in destroying the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters, with their wonderful art and future archaeological possibilities (contrast this to the – rightful – kid-glove handling of the younger relics of the Chauvet Cave in Europe.)
So the UK – particularly the UK parliament – should know, and acknowledge, that much of our nation’s current prosperity is built on the destruction not just of a continent of sophisticated, complex civilisations, but the decimation of deep knowledge systems and understandings about how to survive and thrive in a changing, challenging world. Recovering as much of that as possible is in all of our interests.