Aboriginal Languages, a Repository of Aboriginal Knowledge

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by Neil Godfrey

When I come across an article like Aboriginal languages could reveal scientific clues to Australia’s unique past I generally find myself ignoring references to ancient astronauts but clicking down a host of other warrens helping me catch up on tidbits of fascinating insights into aboriginal culture and beliefs that I have missed in the past ten or so years. This one was no different. It led to myths about meteorites and variable stars and another look at the following map of indigenous languages

And that map reminds me of a project I was closely involved with as a metadata and open access repository librarian not very long ago and that I helped get kick started, the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages. Some years back a certain federal government decided that bilingual education in remote aboriginal communities was not a good idea so many text resources in schools that had been painstakingly produced in local indigenous languages were stacked away to gather dust and creepy crawlies or even dumped in bins. In some cases these books were the only written records of the languages in existence. After an academic from Charles Darwin University (CDU) successfully sought funding to rescue as many of these print resources as possible, an irreplaceable resource for both scholarly linguists internationally and local aboriginal communities themselves, the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages (LAAL) was set up and, since I happened to be working at CDU at the time, I found myself with another very worthy task to assist with.

It was a fascinating project. As a metadata librarian one of my main challenges was investigating ways to facilitate open access to languages and even ideational concepts that had no simple point by point correlation with English; yet more … to find optimal ways to facilitate open access to both linguist scholars and local aboriginal communities.



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14 thoughts on “Aboriginal Languages, a Repository of Aboriginal Knowledge”

  1. Neil, I have been researching the ‘little people’, the Negritos which appear to have been distributed across Australia. Apart from Peter McAllister`s Pygmonia which dismisses a separate origin for Oz pygmies, information is widely dispersed. I spoke to an anthropologist from Armidale University and she had never heard of them. If so little interest has been shown academically, their languages and culture will disappear like so many other extinct aboriginal dialects. Already, disease, clashes with white and other indigenous groups and inter-marriage of the survivors with full-height tribes has removed most of the little folk. Do you have any information about these people?

    1. What is the source for the view that they were distributed across Australia? I confess I, too, was unaware of that claim.

      From listening to an interview with Peter McAllister I understood that the “pygmy” characteristics were adapted for rainforest conditions so if that is the case, and given most of Australia was not rainforest through the time of Aboriginal occupation (so I understand), I would have thought it unlikely that the pygmy type of people would have been found anywhere else but the rainforest areas – especially north and north-east Queensland.

      1. It’s a tantalizing thought and my information is limited to what I read in Morwood’s The Discovery of the Hobbit in 2007. (It’s also known by the title A New Human.) Morwood argued that the “Hobbit” (Homo floresiensis) was a decidedly new species that evolved in isolation on Flores. The dwarfing of the population followed the same pattern we see with the dwarfing of other animal species cut off on small islands. His argument was clearly against counter-claims at the time that homo floresiensis was a deformed modern human or related to modern pygmies. Unless I have missed something major I think that is the dominant view, now.

  2. I’m looking for well sourced and documented Australian Aboriginal creation stories. If you happen to know of any good resources that would be great. Perhaps there are some Australian books that aren’t widely available elsewhere?

    1. Sorry, but I can’t help with that one. It sounds like the sort of question that should be directed to your reference librarian. 😉 They would no doubt consult the Australian National Library (possibly also the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS)) and/or specialist scholars.

  3. Hi, Neil, the sources range across the spectrum, from anthropologists like Tindale and Birdsell, through diaries and reminiscences, to interviews and sightings across Australia. From centuries ago to the present day. It seems to be the fashion today for historians and their followers to negate any claims unless they are the ones making them. I realise the only critical evidence is to witness first-hand, but we can`t be everywhere and have to assess other sources. Do we value media reports or erect a sceptical flag? Do we dismiss a claim because the claimer does not have a degree? If the indigenous demand to be heard, then why not hear all of the indigenes. Even photographs are not regarded as proof with the advent of fakery. For some reason, the ‘little people’ have been moved not only to the back-burner, but off the stove. While DNA looks to be the clincher in the study of origins, if a group is ignored, how can we be certain of our conclusions? More to follow if you are interested.

    1. Why would anyone with a serious interest in aboriginal history and culture want to ignore any relevant testable evidence? I have come across several scholarly and other serious publications about aboriginal history and culture that point to diaries etc of earlier generations so I am surprised that anyone thinks there is a “fashion to negate claims” by historical eyewitnesses and reports. New understandings, some involving very dramatic revisions of traditional ideas, are always emerging, often by the uncovering of old diaries of explorers, early settlers, etc.

      I’d be interested in any sources that I can follow up for myself and see what others have had to say about them — and if they have ignored them, as you suggest, to understand why.

  4. Hi, Neil, I started my voyage of discovery with the report from world-renowned anthropologists, Tindale and Birdsell, during their research into characteristics of Australian indigenes. They actually visited some of the pygmy tribes in the rain-forest near Cairns. When Keith Windshuttle attempted to resurrect the hidden facts about these ‘little people’, I couldn’t understand the pile of abuse heaped on him by leading academics. It seemed to be dodging the existence of these tribes. When Peter McAllister in his book Pygmonia, pushed the line that smallness of stature was due to living in the dense rain-forest, I wondered how he explained the full size of other rain-forest tribes. Or pygmy people that didn`t live in the rain-forest. Then I came across Lindsay Page Winterbotham`s interviews with Willie McKenzie (Gaiarbau), an aboriginal man from the Kilcoy, Queensland area whose father had told him of the ‘little people’, the Dinderi, in his area. This led me to Jill Slack`s Then and Now, a history of the Gayndah, Queensland, aborigines with sightings of pygmies there. I found a mention of Archibald Meston, Qld Protector of Aborigines, moving ‘little people’ into the Durundur Reserve from those areas in the 1870s. Jill referred me to John Green`s collection of tribal history in the Gympie, Queensland area with mention of the pygmies, the Dhi’lumi, there. Since then, I have collected mentions of small-statured people across Australia, from Western Australia to Tasmania, sightings in N.S.W. from Barrington Tops to the Blue Mountains up to the present day, and Arnhem Land. The Bama people from near Mareeba are possibly another source to trace. I`m trying to track a mention of John McDouall Stuart who accompanied Sturt on an expedition to Lake Torrens and may have met small people there. All these tantalising clues keep me hunting for what may have been one of the founding folk in Australia. Ultimately, I expect DNA profiling will be necessary to determine just where these people fit into our history.

  5. Here`s an article from the Royal Historical Society of Qld. newsletter that mentions the consulting physician at Cairns Hospital and his conclusions( sorry for the length):- ‘AUSTRALIAN NEGRITOS

    In the course of general business at the meeting of the Society on 28 June 1962, the President referred to his recent visit to Townsville, where he had attended a medical congress, and read a paper. One of the interesting matters which came before the conference was the description by Dr. G. J. Douglas, of Townsville, of a lost tribe of negritos on the Atherton Tableland, west of Cairns, compared with whom the aborigines are New Australians. In his paper. Dr. Douglas told how he had treated these people for eight years while he was consulting physician at Cairns Hospital, Sir Raphael said these negritos were quite different in their racial characteristics from the typical Australian aboriginal. Although perfectly proportioned physically, they were considerably shorter in stature than the aborigine, some of them being under five feet in height. They were darker skinned and had curly hair instead of the straight hair of the aboriginal. They were a peaceable, inoffensive people who lived in isolated jungle country whither they had been driven by the aborigines, and were hunted down by cannibals in the same way as the kangaroo. Existence of these negritos was first made known by two anthropologists, Norman Tindale, Curator of Anthropology at Adelaide Museum, and Birdsell, an


    American, whose expedition was financed by the South Australian University, the Adelaide Museum, and the Harvard University. Sir Raphael said similar negrito types had been found in certain parts of New Guinea and also in Malaya. It was believed that these negritos had migrated to Australia many thousands of years ago, when North Australia was joined to the Asian mainland. They had reached Australia several thousand years before the aborigines came upon the scene. The now extinct aborigines were of negrito type. (1) Sir Raphael said it was extremely likely that the Jardine Brothers in their trek to Cape York Peninsula had come across evidence of the existence of these negritos. Mr. Arthur Laurie had drawn his attention to references in the journal of the Jardines to the remains of the bodies of negritos who had evidently been the victims of cannibals.

    (1) R. A. Keble (Melbourne Museum) has put forAvard the hypothesis that the first Avave of aboriginal migrants to Australia came by a land bridge about 18,000 years ago. This land bridge, the mid-Post Glacial Coastal Plain, became the submerged floor of Torres Strait about 8,000 year.s ago, and in the intervening 10,000 years other Avaves of migrants of practically the same stock as the first reached Australia by the same route. These migrants, Keble terms Prot-Indics or Australoids; they Avere, he thinks, a jungle people of whom remnants are still found in southern India (the Kadir, the Irulas, and Vedans), and in Sumatra, Borneo, the Celebes, Malaya, and Siam. (Australian Encyclopaedia, p. 7.) Other geologists hold different views. The general opinion expresses the probability that early man came into Australia from south-east Asia, via Indonesia, by two routes: that is, via New Guinea, Torres Strait, and Cape York and via Timor and north-western Australia. He came perhaps about 12,000 years ago, either at the end of the last Glacial period or in the really recent geological period; and he brought the dingo with him. The existence of small-statured natives Avho Avere probably negritos Avas noted by Karl Lumholtz in his book Among Cannibals Avhich Avas published in 1890. Lumholtz, a notable NorAvegian zoologist, visited Australia 1880-1884, on behalf of the University of Christiania. In 1880-1881 he made his headquarters at Gracemere Station, as the guest of the Archer family. He spent several months in the Mackay district and in the Herbert River district of North Queensland. During these expeditions he discovered several new mammals, notably Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus lumholtzi), made observations on birds and insects, and gave a great deal of information on the aborigines.—Ed.

    1. Have you had a chance to read Russell McGregor’s article “Making the Rainforest Aboriginal: Tindale and Birdsell’s Foray into Deep Time”? If not, you can request a copy of the paper from Russell McGregor at https://researchonline.jcu.edu.au/46957/ or purchase/request a copy via http://www.qm.qld.gov.au/About+Us/Publications/Memoirs+of+the+Queensland+Museum#.W41AFLh9iUm

      In the previous comment you mention the hostility aimed at Keith Windshuttle for his article. I agree with some of the principles and criticisms of historical methods that KW has raised in relation to Australian history, but at the same time I cannot ignore his attachment to Quadrant which is anything but an “objective” journal. I am confused by KW’s principles on methods as I have understood them, but am worried by his links to reactionary or very right wing causes. His bias was revealed when he fell victim to a hoax article in Quadrant.

      I would not want to dismiss anything argued by KW but I would always like to examine what he provides as evidence and to cross-check his points with others.

  6. Thanks for that article, Neil. I contacted Jeremy Hodes who gave me references to a number of publications on North Qld. which dealt with the subject. Too much ego in research for my liking. The discipline allegedly taught to acedemics seems to be forgotten when it comes to sifting facts from whatever. Whether it`s religion or other histories, critical thinking gets shoved sideways. Sure, test theories and submitted thoughts, but leave the ad hom at the door. Back to the search.

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