2021-06-19

A Civilisation Quite Unlike Any Other

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by Neil Godfrey

The concluding words of Peter Sutton in his critical response to Dark Emu could have been addressed directly to me:

People keep telling us, even those who are aware of Dark Emu’s many flaws, that at least it has got people thinking about an important subject. We hope their interest continues, and that the tens of thousands who have read the book go beyond it and keep learning more from other sources. So long as Dark Emu is not the agent of their entrenchment in a dogmatic view, that is good. So long as we remain open to debate and a respectful exchange of views, in a shared space and not from behind walls, it is more than good. It is in that spirit that we offer this book to the reader. — Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? p. 201

I confess I was one of the readers of Dark Emu who felt a bit edgy over some of its emphases and its “slightly misdirected” ideological focus but for all of that still found myself saying “I’m glad I read it” and commending it to others. Two scholars, Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe, have been much more clear-headed and confronted head-on the book’s often misleading emphases and “quite misdirected” ideological focus.

There is no better condition for relationships than truthfulness. We have tried here to set part of the record straighter than it has become through the popularised mythology of history of the kind found in Dark Emu. We have done so in a positive spirit, but also a corrective one. The Old People—the First Australians—and all of us deserve better than a history that does not respect or do justice to the societies whose economic and spiritual adjustment to their environment lasted so well and so vigorously until the advent of the colonies and the subsequent degradation of much of that environment through land clearing, pastoral stocking, and the spread of feral animals and plants.

Pascoe, by consistently gilding a lily that needs no gilding, suggests that he sees a foraging way of life as inferior. . . . 

. . . .

In this book we have grappled with Dark Emu’s mixture of positive factual information and its tendency to trim the evidence to fit the author’s model, its lack of true scholarship, its ignoring of Aboriginal elders’ knowledge, its disturbing social evolutionist philosophy, and its overwhelming attention to the material aspects of Aboriginal food production to the exclusion of the rich spiritual propagation philosophy of the Old People’s culture. (p. 200)

Years back I found myself impressed with an exhibition at Melbourne’s Museum of Victoria that showed a diorama of Aborigines apparently living in a settled life in stone houses and engaging in complex aquaculture in a part of western Victoria. I have been out of date for many years, not realizing that the message of that exhibition has long been superseded. A chapter by Keryn Walshe reassured me that I was not mistaken in my initial impressions but also made it clear that my source was wrong:

The vision of ‘hundreds of people living in villages’ had gone unquestioned and become all-pervasive, as witnessed in a former diorama at the Museum of Victoria that depicted a scene at Lake Condah with the caption: ‘The Kerrup-Jmara did not need to move house, and their villages of stone were probably permanent. Several hundred people lived in some villages.’ This exhibit was complemented by educational resources designed by VAS, conveying the same image of permanent stone houses set out in villages. (p. 183)

Further studies have shown that stones were used for a few dwellings but only as supports for wooden posts, and the dwellings were not occupied permanently either. One of the main criticisms of Sutten and Walshe is that Bruce Pascoe, the author of Dark Emu, has singled out the exceptional that has been found in one or two places and presented it in such a way as to hide what was far more typical of Aboriginal ways of living.

Pascoe’s quotations from explorer diaries were some of the most interesting highlights of Dark Emu. It was disappointing, therefore, to learn from chapter 11 of Farmers of Hunter-Gatherers? that some of those quotations trimmed off sentences gave a somewhat different picture from the one Dark Emu painted. Similarly for some of his quotations from more scholarly articles that pointed to certain objects (a hoe, some dwellings), with good reason, not being of Aboriginal origin at all.

The term “village” is itself problematic. Pascoe quotes from explorer diaries records of coming across large clusters of dwellings. In my own mind, I reconciled these accounts with what I knew of at least some sort of nomadic or wandering existence by noting that the same descriptions appeared to assume that their dwellers had gone elsewhere at the time. Sutten and Walshe make it clear that the word village implies a permanent settlement, and even a permanent settlement plus, with markets, special public purpose spaces, etc. A more correct term would be “encampment”. Ditto for the storages of food that the explorers tended to come across. Such storages were far more likely to be kept for occasions when multiple tribes visited the site for, say, annual ceremonies.

I found myself nodding in full agreement when Sutton and Walshe drew attention to Pascoe’s implications throughout Dark Emu that the image of Aboriginal life as “merely” “hunters and gatherers” suggests to us today that they were inferior to other peoples. Pascoe appears to be trying to rebut a pervasive racist view of Aboriginal inferiority but does so by trying to show how “like white Europeans” or “like Chinese” they were technical nous. As Sutton demonstrates most thoroughly, Pascoe is charging a windmill:

How, then, can Pascoe defend his argument that Aboriginal people in popular imagination subscribe to ‘a belief in the brutish description of Aboriginals that Australian history insists we accept’ (page 100)? Who are these insisting ogres? Isolated pub racists? So-called ‘culture warriors’? Australian history writing, including the TV versions of it, moved way beyond that colonial-era delusion long ago. The multiple volumes of historical correctives to colonial frontier ‘pioneer’ mythology published by Henry Reynolds and other historians since the 1970s are in thousands of households. Their role in correcting the jingoistic settler histories of the past, in which ‘brave pioneers’ battled against ‘a harsh environment’ and ‘troublesome blacks’, was recognised and summarised accurately by Marcia Langton in her prologue to First Australians in 2008:

In the past half century; as a new generation of historians has interpreted the records, a dazzling view of Australian life has emerged. Instead of the drudges who peopled the pages of the old books, convicts, women, children. African-American slaves, adventurous European aristocrats, artists, con-men, bushrangers and thousands of Indigenous people have assumed more detailed, nuanced and intriguing personas, and their endeavours have become better understood. The ridiculous and audacious, as well as the common or garden, activities of ordinary and extraordinary’ people have replaced the monotonous tales of the March of Civilisation.

Langton then added that only ‘a handful of historians, mostly amateurs, persist in vilifying all the original inhabitants of this continent and their descendants’, but she also said their works were very popular with those who ‘prefer to imagine the Australia of the old school books’. (pp. 139f)

Dark Emu sends the message that readers must think in dichotomous terms: either “mere” hunting and gathering or farmers and agriculturalists. The label “hunter-gatherer” in the context of the debates arising from Pascoe’s book (with its “culture war” opponents) is misleading, as Sutton explains:

Dark Emu sets up a simple distinction between agriculturalists living in ‘permanent housing’ and the ‘hapless wandering’ of the ‘mere hunter-gatherer, choosing to conclude that the former is the truth and the latter a widely accepted he about Aboriginal Australia before colonisation. There seems to be an assumption here that subsistence based on hunting and gathering is itself not complex. This is far from the truth.

Setting aside the various proactive ways in which Aboriginal people at conquest modified their environment and its resources, the hunting, fishing and gathering economy was far more complex than might be imagined from the word ‘mere’. As an economic process it was at least as complex as gardening or farming, if not much more so. Agriculture can get by with knowledge of a small range of flora and fauna. Hunting and gathering can’t.

Hunting and gathering in pre-colonial Australia required fine-grained knowledge of hundreds of species and their habitats, annual cycles, names and generic classifications; of methods for processing them and for preparing them as food, as tools, as bodily decoration, and as ritual paraphernalia. It required what repeatedly seemed to colonial newcomers to be almost supernatural eyesight, seeing things in the far distance or among foliage that no colonial could see.

Allied to this, it required the ability to track game using often infinitesimal traces left on the ground or in foliage. It required tremendous spatial and narrative memory, of the kind many of us now have very much lost through reliance on paper maps, written records and Google Maps. It required high skills in lithics (stone tool manufacture) in order to reveal from within the rough stone the elegant tools now found in museums and in the bush. And it required deft and precise skills in using weapons and wielding digging sticks, nets, lures and traps. Spearing fish required the ability to calculate instantly how refraction through water needed to be corrected for during the throw.

Even ‘mere’ hunter-gatherers would have been resource experts on their own ground, but Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers-plus.

It might have been better if labels like ‘hunter-gatherer’ and ‘horticulturist’ and ‘agriculturist’ were not so prominent in these debates, as Harry Lourandos has proposed. They can sometimes attract outdated evolutionary schemes that operate on the discredited ‘primitive’ versus ‘advanced’ scale, also known as social evolutionism. (pp. 8ff)

Tom Griffiths

Aborigines did not attempt to “work against” and re-make their environment. Sutton and Walshe drive home the strong reminder that they learned to live with it, to adapt to it. They also remind readers of the importance of the Dreamtime in Aboriginal ways of thinking. The spiritual life of the First Settlers has to be appreciated in order to understand their responses to their environment and their resistance to white invaders who deliberately replaced them. It is wrong-headed to apply our standards of civilization to a world that has moved in a totally different direction. Sutton quotes Tom Griffiths:

I think it’s a mistake to treat the concept of agriculture as a timeless, stable, universal and preordained template, to apply a European hierarchical metaphor, an imperial measure of civilisation, to societies that defy imported classifications. One of the great insights delivered by that half-century of scholarship is that Aboriginal societies produced a civilisation quite unlike any other, one uniquely adapted to Australian elements and ecosystems. (p. 70)


Sutton, Peter, and Keryn Walshe. Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?: The Dark Emu Debate. Melbourne University Press, 2021.



2021-06-17

The Etiquette of Modesty among the Naked Aborigines

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by Neil Godfrey

We have seen early photographs of Australian aborigines completely naked but I did not understand their modesty. Paradoxical, but explained by anthropologist Peter Sutton:

People were not prudish about nudity but valued modesty, expressed in sitting positions and in averting the gaze, for example. An early record of this etiquette is from First Fleet member David Collins at Port Jackson: ‘… and although entire strangers to the comforts and conveniences of clothing, yet they sought with a native modesty to conceal by attitude what the want of covering would otherwise have revealed’.

Sutton, Peter, and Keryn Walshe. Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?: The Dark Emu Debate. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2021. p. 97

He goes on to show how items of clothing that were worn by some Aborigines some of the time were for embellishment or served symbolic purposes rather than for comfort or covering.

In another place he quotes James Dawson noting that a local tribe in winter wore large kangaroo skins with — contrary to our fashion-oriented expectations — “the fur side inwards”.


2021-06-16

Spiritual Management of the Cosmos: Aboriginal and Christian

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by Neil Godfrey

To make rain

The first was a rainmaking site in Kabi Kabi country. A clever man would cut pieces of the stem of a rare vine growing next to a cave on Mount Urah, and talk to Biral (the ‘all-father’). He would then throw a piece of the vine stem in the direction of the territory of friendly neighbouring tribes, calling their names as he did so. (Sutton and Walshe, p. 32)

To ensure a replenished food supply

. . . spiritual maintenance sites were called mowar, and Gaiarbau recorded details of maintenance rites for rain, kangaroos, carpet snakes, honey and eaglehawks:

‘All such ceremonies used to be performed a few days before they moved camp; and they expected, when in due course they returned to this old camping ground, that their requests would have been granted, and food would again be plentiful.’ (p. 33)

If you really want something to eat. . . .

Early Northern Territory missionary Father Francis Xavier Gsell recalled local reactions to the first establishment of a mission garden on
Bathurst Island . . . : Watching us sowing, they grumbled:

‘What a pity to lose all this food, these potatoes, yams, and ground-nuts. In the earth they will go bad and be of no use to anybody. If,’ they said finally, ‘you really want something to eat, sing a song to the spirits, dance a dance, and you’ll get all the food you want.’  (p. 63)

Ancestral Beings left them for us

An Arnhem Land woman once said, in effect, rather patronizingly, as she watched a Fijian missionary’ working in his mission garden, anxiously concerned because a few of the plants had died:

‘You people go to all that trouble, working and planting seeds, but we don’t have to do that. All these things are there for us, the Ancestral Beings left them for us. In the end, you depend on the sun and the rain just the same as we do, but the difference is that we just have to go and collect the food when it is ripe. We don’t have all this other trouble.’  (p. 64)

He grow himself

In 1974,1 participated in a field trip to map Johnny Flinders’ country and its neighbours in eastern Cape York. Flinders spoke with a briefly visiting geographer, David Harris of University College London, who asked him why his people did not sow plants to make food. Flinders’ brief reply was:

No, he grow himself!(p. 64)

Storm and Solstice

The earthly environment was not the only target of Aboriginal spiritual management. Nicolas Peterson witnessed a Warlpiri winter solstice ceremony in July 1972. The people sang songs before and after sunset:

‘The explicit purpose was to get the Milky Way to move across the sky more quickly and so reduce the length of the night.’

And suddenly a great tempest arose on the sea, . . .  Then He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea . . . (Matthew 8:23ff)

I was once in a bush camp south of Cape Keerweer, CYP [=Cape York Peninsula], where we were sleeping in the open, and an unseasonal thunderstorm began to break out during the night. The senior Wik man in the camp, Billy Landis Gothachalkenin, harangued the lightning and storm in no uncertain terms, to get it to stop. His sister Isobel Wolmby, on fearing approaching lightning during the wet season we spent based at Watha-nhiin Outstation in the same region, would take a sharp knife and slash the air in its direction, ‘cutting’ the dangerous flashes to make them stop. (p. 44)

Pan now across to the European past and its legacy today . . .

Monotheistic prayer

In the deeper European past, species fertility was also heavily reliant on religious acts, such as sacrifices to the gods of various crops and domestic and wild animals, or monotheistic prayer. These mostly survive now only as folkloric memory gestures in the case of crop gods, or, more sincerely, in the case of, for example, Lutheran wheat farmers praying for rain. (pp. 44f)

. . . o 0 o . . .

Not that the Aboriginal people lacked a life of serious complex mental engagement. While working in the Northern Territory on a project to help preserve Aboriginal languages a colleague attempted to explain a little of the “webs of kinship” and I was soon lost, mystified, trying to take in the finest gradations and depths of their “webs of kinship and social structure” . . .

If you’re looking for ‘sophisticated’ complexity in classical Aboriginal society, you will find it above all in the intricate webs of kinship and social structure in the richness of the grammars of the languages; in the innumerable mythic narratives that bind place to place and engage the full range of the emotions; in the thousands of song series and the prodigious feats of memory by which they have been locally maintained; and in the elaborate intertwining of totemic religion, linguistic group organisation and land tenure systems. (p. 44)


Sutton, Peter, and Keryn Walshe. Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?: The Dark Emu Debate. Melbourne University Press, 2021.


 


2021-06-15

Australian Aborigines: “Complex Hunter-Gatherers, Not Simple farmers”

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by Neil Godfrey

I enjoyed reading Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu — drawing on Australia’s early explorer diaries to portray Australia’s Aborigines as living in “villages” of huts and practising agriculture and aquaculture — but with some caveats. I found myself constantly adjusting what he was depicting with what I already knew to be true so that I came away not with a totally new understanding but a revised one. I could not accept on the basis of the argument he presented that Aborigines practised democracy or that they lived as settled farmers. I have heard and seen too much from “primary sources” to dismiss the notion that they were also hunters and gatherers. Besides, I found myself wondering, why is it so important to stress agriculture as an indicator of civilizational advance? Sure, agriculture was important in our tradition, but is it really a universal marker of progress? Progress towards what? I have been fascinated with the Aboriginal concepts of the Dreaming or the Dreamtime. Even in Dark Emu one reads little reminders that technologies practised by Aborigines were performed with a cultic or Dreamtime mythological association or impulse.

Now a new volume has been released that I think will restore some balance to Dark Emu‘s image of the First Australians. Others have commended Pascoe for popularizing views of Aborigines that have long been known among specialists and experts. It would be a mistake, however, to replace the hunter-gatherer view with a settler-farmer construct. So we now have Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe’s Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate. I have only begun to read it but already a couple of sections can be quoted:

Pascoe contradicts the false belief, perhaps held by some, that all Aboriginal people were naked all of the time. Some Aboriginal people sewed animal skins into cloaks (page 89).

He criticises the uninformed view that classical Aboriginal society consisted of constantly nomadic people who simply lived off nature’s bounty, were not ecological agents, did not stay in one place for more than a few days and did not store resources (for example, page 12).

And he gives considerable attention to the storage of foods (pages 105—14), this being a useful corrective to ignorance of Aboriginal storage methods.

(Sutton, p. 5)

And in particular:

Pascoe’s message is built on a simple distinction between what he calls ‘mere’ hunter-gatherers, on the one hand, and farmers; or between ‘mere’ hunting and gathering on one hand and ‘agriculture’ on the other. We consider that the evidence, in fact, reveals a positioning of the Aboriginal people of 1788 somewhere between these two extremes: they were complex hunter-gatherers, not simple farmers. The Old People in 1788 had developed ways of managing and benefiting from their landscape that went beyond just hunting and just gathering but did not involve gardening or farming. They were ecological agents who worked with the environment, rather than, usually, against it. They frequently used slow-burning fires to make their landscapes more liveable. However, they did not cut down bush to clear the land, plough and hoe the soil in preparation for planting, or then sow stored seed or tubers or rootstock in gardens or in fields.

(p. 7)

For the Andrew Bolts who have savaged Dark Emu as “a hoax” whose purpose is supposedly to accuse white settlers of ignorant and cruel treatment of the first inhabitants here, I further note that Sutton and Walshe share Pascoe’s assessment that white occupation is more accurately described as a “conquest” of the land and not at all “the first settlement”.


Sutton, Peter, and Keryn Walshe. Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?: The Dark Emu Debate. Melbourne University Press, 2021.

Pascoe, Bruce. Dark Emu. Black Seeds : Agriculture Or Accident? Broome, Western Australia: Magabala Books, 2014.



2018-08-28

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.

 

 


2015-04-18

The Oldest Oral Traditions in the World

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by Neil Godfrey

280px-Palm_Valley_NT
Palm Valley — Wikipedia

How old can an oral tradition be? How long can a social memory exist?

Surely much depends on the stability of the social organizations that sustain them. But can we imagine a story surviving through generations over 7,000 or even 30,000 years?

Scientists studying certain species of palm trees curiously surviving in Central Australia may have coincidentally confirmed Aboriginal stories that must date back at least 7000 years.

It had until recently been thought that palm trees in Central Australia were survivors from Gondwanaland, from before the time Australia split off from what is now Antarctica, South America and Africa, and a time when Australia was covered in rainforest.

Months of genetic testing by University of Tasmania ecologist David Bowman and a Japanese team eventually confirmed that trees that had long been thought to date from Gondwana ancestors are not nearly so old at all. They in fact date from the time humans inhabited the continent.

The results led him to conclude the seeds were carried to the Central Desert by humans up to 30,000 years ago.

Professor Bowman read an Aboriginal legend recorded in 1894 by pioneering German anthropologist and missionary Carl Strehlow, which was only recently translated, describing the “gods from the north” bringing the seeds to Palm Valley.

Professor Bowman said he was amazed.

“We’re talking about a verbal tradition which had been transmitted through generations possibly for over 7,000, possibly 30,000 years,” he said. Continue reading “The Oldest Oral Traditions in the World”


2012-02-11

Ouch! My own beliefs undermined by my own historical principles!

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by Neil Godfrey

A 19th century engraving showing Australian &q...
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Well this is really quite embarrassing. I have never read more than snippets by a notorious right-wing Australian historian, Keith Windschuttle, and those I have read have been mostly quotations found in the works of his critics, but I know I have been strongly opposed to whatever Windschuttle has written about the history of the clashes between white settlers in Australia and the land’s aboriginal peoples. Politically I have long been a bit of a lefty because it is my conviction that the left is on the side of humanity. Human rights and social justice causes — including of course those of Australian aboriginals — have as a rule been very close to my heart and my energies.

Historian Keith Windschuttle has long been publicly associated with that epitome of all that is opposed to anything leftish and against any idea that white Australians owe Australian aboriginals anything (least of all an apology), former Prime Minister John Howard.

So what am I to do when, in expanding my knowledge of the principles historians use with respect to oral history, I discover that all for which I have been arguing vis a vis the methods of historical Jesus scholars, is on the side of my political arch-nemesis Keith Windschuttle?

This smarts.

I have had to concede that historians who have buttressed my political views may very well have been lacking when it comes to specific details of the history of white and black relations in Australia. I am not conceding that the picture is, well, black and white (apologies for the unintended pun) since the historical evidence is multifaceted and there are still details of Windschuttle’s arguments that I do question. But as far as his point about historical methodology and the use of oral history is concerned, I have to concede, ouch! that in this instance the politically right is methodologically right, too. Even my own beloved left can be wrong once or twice.

This experience serves to remind me how difficult it must be for nationalistic or ethnically-oriented Jews and any Christian with religiously grounded sympathies for Israel to accept the findings of modern archaeology and the “minimalists” that question the very historical existence of biblical Israel. Not to mention how hard it clearly is for believing Christians and committed historical Jesus scholars to accept the basic norms of historiography even when quoted and placed right beneath their noses.

Reading the debate about methodology is like reading a debate between myself and a historical Jesus scholar. If nothing else it reminds us that history is one of the most ideological of disciplines, and if so, surely biblical studies is the most ideological. No wonder postmodernist notions so easily white-ant both fields.

When oral history lacks any independent external corroboration

From “Doctored evidence and invented incidents in Aboriginal historiography” by Keith Windschuttle (Ouch! quoting KW really does hurt!! But I cannot deny that the criticism of KW’s words such as these do side-step entirely the supporting evidence he supplies for his arguments. And no, I am by no means saying I have now been converted to the Right, but facts is facts and valid argument is valid argument.) (My own emphases etc as always.) Continue reading “Ouch! My own beliefs undermined by my own historical principles!”