28 May 2018
“British archaeologist Christopher Chippindale reflected Does the history of humans in Australia . . . belong to the ethnic descendants of those first inhabitants? . . . Or is there some wider claim, of science and common human concern, to rights of access to relics of the past??’”
Fantastic resource! Science, history, anecdotes, politics – and at the base of it all is the world’s oldest continuing culture. Exactly how old keeps changing. I think we’re up to 65,000 years now for Australia’s Indigenous people. There was so much work done in the last 50 years that it’s hard to keep track, but the author does a great job of keeping us both informed and interested.
And guess what?
“. . . axes in Europe dated to about 8000 years ago.”
What? 8000 years? That’s not an old axe. THIS is an old axe.
“In 2017, another team pushed the date back . . . publishing the discovery of ground-edge axes in the lowest levels of a 65,000-year-old site at Madjedbebe.”
So who’s primitive now, eh? Old, yes. Primitive, well, yes, but more sophisticated than Europeans of the same era.
I arrived in Australia in 1968, and at that time, the 1967 referendum had only just been passed in an historic landslide YES vote with over 90% turnout:
“Do you approve the proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution entitled 'An Act to alter the Constitution so as to omit certain words relating to the people of the Aboriginal race in any state so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the population'?
Earlier, Griffiths tells us
“. . . anthropologist WEH Stanner described in 1938 . . .’a mass of solid indifference’ in Australian culture to Indigenous Australia. . . he coined the phrase ‘the great Australian silence.’”
Griffiths includes some politics, of course, and references to social history, but the main story is archaeological and cultural, which is what would have prompted the question at the beginning: Who owns the history?
He introduces us to many scientists, working at different times in different parts of the continent, but arriving at some similar conclusions. Indigenous Australians have been here for a long time, they lived in different nations, and they maintained networks between communities and nations for trade and commerce.
Isabel McBryde is arguably the mother of Australian archaeology. She began her work in 1960 in the New England region of NSW, thinking she’d be looking at only old relics, but “started seeing it as a living heritage, maintained through powerful connections to country, ‘preserved faithfully by a small community’ and ‘now the focus of a revival of interest in traditional culture and values.’”
Griffiths says her studies show “. . . a clear distinction between the societies that lived in the coastal river valleys and those the roamed the tablelands . . .over the last 9000 years. . . while Australia may be a continent, it is made up of many countries.”
So, then. Who does own the history? Who gives permission? Imagine a group of “foreigners” wandering into cathedrals and mosques and temples with their picks and trowels to unearth tombs and take the bones away in bags. Not likely.
In Arnhem Land, South African-born Carmel Schrire was helped in her digs by local people, but they gradually grew angry with her disturbing some sacred things. She wrote “Colonialism is a chronicle of betrayals.”
It sure is.
“. . . a film unit recorded a range of ethnographic activities in the Western and Central Deserts from 1964-1969, including stone knapping, burning regimes and restricted men’s business . . . with the firm assurance that the images would not return to the community. Gould made a similar verbal contract with the Ngaanyatjarra people.”
But Gould wrote a book and included 52 photos, assuming nobody in this remote community would ever see it.
Oops! Griffiths says he has condensed and simplified the story.
“On 16 May 1971 a Ngaanyatjarra schoolgirl returned to her home in Laverton with a copy of ‘Yiwara’. She had bought the book on a recent trip to Perth after recognising the woman on the front cover as a close relative. She showed the book to many women, but when her father saw it he became very angry. The book revealed information that was restricted to initiated men. By having it in her possession, there was concern the schoolgirl had breached customary law, and that she would be ritually speared for the transgression.”
I’m not sure what happened to her, but we know what other religions have done to transgressors, so we shouldn’t be surprised.
There’s far too much in this meaty book for me to discuss, but a few of the topics include uranium mining in the Northern Territory, the Franklin River campaign, the misrepresentation of Tasmanian Aborigines as “extinct” (or as Mark Twain once famously said, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”). In the case of Tasmania, by saying they are gone is to deny the current descendants their rights to native title and land claims.
I’ve not even touched the highlights of this important addition to the growing body of work about Australia’s geological and cultural history. You’d think there’d be more available, considering how many years we’ve had to look at it.
For academics, it's extremely thoroughly footnoted and referenced and has an index. Too easy!
My Goodreads review includes an illustration of an Aboriginal Language map. (No two maps seem to spell the names the same, but all agree it's a big and varied continent.)