Tag Archives: Australian Aborigines

Aboriginal Languages, a Repository of Aboriginal Knowledge

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.

 

 

The Oldest Oral Traditions in the World

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. read more »

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

A 19th century engraving showing Australian &q...
Image via Wikipedia

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 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.) read more »