Dr Lesley Head
Archaeological research by a joint University of Wollongong and Australian Museum team suggests that Australia may have been first occupied by people before 100,000 years ago. The research, which has received extensive media coverage in the last few months, also provides a date of around 60,000 years ago for a form of rock art known as cupule engraving. This has long been recognised to be the oldest surviving form of rock art in Australia, but has not previously been found in a datable context.
Two University of Wollongong researchers, Dr Lesley Head and Mr David Price of the School of Geosciences, have been involved in the project over a number of years, together with Dr Richard Fullagar of the Division of Anthropology at the Australian Museum. In an article appearing in the journal Meanjin, Lesley Head reflects on issues raised by the broader context of the research and the public's reaction to it.
That old archaeological dates in Australia are frontpage news tells us more about our own society than about prehistoric ones. Many Australians are now passionately interested in Aboriginal prehistory; it is one of the paths by which we are coming to terms with our own social and ecological role on the continent. But we still conceptualise that history in linear terms that reflect the colonial heritage: we think of timelines with numbers, layers of sediment and ladders of evolution.
Where do contemporary Aboriginal people find a place for themselves in a history constructed according to the principles of the Western scientific method? Are they living fossils, exemplars of lifestyles many thousands of years old? Are they examples of "pristine" hunter-gatherers, irrevocable contaminated vb their contact with European society? Is there any compatibility between Dreaming stories of the ancestral past and timelines with dates on them? These disturbing questions are the stuff of daily life for Australian archaeologists and the Aboriginal communities with whom the work.
Throw the visual imagery of Jinmium—red rocks with ancient markings, black skin, blokes in akubras—into the public domain and issues become more problematic. We are reminded that in the Australian imagination the "timeless" land and people are never far from the primeval and inconceivably ancient. The association of "real" Aborigines with antiquity is reinforced in a number of areas of popular culture, from Toyota advertisements to the overseas campaigns of the Australian Tourist Commission.(1)
So it is not surprising that a research project in which present-day Aboriginal relations to land have been as much a focus as prehistoric ones should get publicity for having old dates. But it is useful to disentangle three issues which need to be considered separately.
The first is the role of Aboriginal people as stakeholders in the writing of Australian prehistory. The second is the way in which archaeology has become part of (mainly) white Australia's attempt to understand its own identity and impact on a continent previously inhabited by hunter-gatherers. The third is a more academic debate, in which researchers across several disciplines are attempting to problematise, rather than take as natural or given, continuity and change in Aboriginal relations to land.
Exploring these issues takes us to central questions in Australian cultural life. To dismiss this process as "new age" or "politically correct" archaeology is a facile analysis, uninformed by either the sociology of science or the recent history of Australian archaeology.
The Jinmium Dates
There is no way to whisper to Australia in 1996 that people might have been here more than 100,000 years ago. When Richard Fullagar, David Price and I decided we had no option but to publish the apparently anomalous thermoluminescence (TL) dates from the Jinmium rockshelter, we knew that, unlike other papers we and colleagues had written on our East Kimberley research, this one would not stay out of the newspapers for long. We also knew we'd find ourselves living through an episode of Frontline.
We had two main concerns with any publicity: timing and context. Most importantly, press coverage should not pre-empt scientific publication of the results. But was there a way to do it that emphasised the broader context of our research endeavour, of which dating is just one part, and did not offend but rather included the Aboriginal people without whom the ten-year project could not be carried out?
A press release to a level playing field of journalists seemed the least suitable way, and the most likely to produce the sort of treasure hunt view of archaeology that we and dozens of our colleagues spend much time trying to dispel. In the end, it was a particularly tenacious journalist, James Woodford of the Sydney Morning Herald, who chose us more than we chose him. After the paper had been accepted and scheduled for publication in Antiquity we agreed to talk with him and the staff of Waringarri Radio in Kununurra about covering the issues in depth in the Herald and on radio.
For reasons that are on record as being the fault of neither the journalists nor the researchers, the Herald story ran five weeks earlier than planned, at a time when final proofs of the paper were not yet available for scientists. Waringarri Radio had twenty-four hours notice to put together a set of brief interviews, rather than the half hour documentary they had planned.
The scientific community can be reassured that the editorial process was not compromised. We nevertheless live with the tag of "show-ponies"—a cardinal sin in academic circles. While we find that galling, particularly having spent two years trying to avoid such a situation, it is a small price to pay for averting a greater danger: alienating the Aboriginal community with whom we work.
Overseas scientists in particular would do well to recognise that there is more than one set of stakeholders and more than one etiquette to be observed. Furthermore, out in the real world people are making decisions about long-term land use on the basis of the information currently available to them. Sitting patiently in the background throughout this process have been the officials of the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory, interim stewards of a large area which includes the Jinmium complex.
Archaeology and Aborigines
Aboriginal people are no longer prepared to accept an archaeology that is just the next face of colonialism, characterised by dispossession of cultural heritage rather than land. Members of the Australian Archaeological Association are required by their Code of Ethics to negotiate and obtain the informed consent of local Aboriginal people before commencing work, not to remove artefacts or remains without their written consent, and to return the research results in formats accessible to local people. In communities where most older people neither read nor write, accessible formats must include radio and visual media.
Aboriginal demands for participation were crucial in the cultural heritage legislation developed in most parts of Australia in the 1970s and 1980s. They were also influential in encouraging archaeologists to look more broadly at how Aboriginal people understood the landscape, rather than focusing just on "sites" and "relics". Prehistoric archaeologists deal on a daily basis with the challenges of this politicisation in a way that historians, for example, do not.
The material remains which constitute evidence for archaeologists are an arena of contested ownership and authorisation, as is the physical landscape in which they are embedded.
In most parts of Australia appropriate processes of consultation are also a condition of an archaeological research permit being granted by the relevant state or territory authority. In the case of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, research funding is not granted unless the support of the relevant Aboriginal community is demonstrated.
Every day of the week archaeologists around the country, in probably a hundred different contexts, negotiate with Aboriginal communities. These negotiations take a lot of time and can be hard work, but the vast majority are mutually productive. None of the dating specialists can do their job without them. The consequences when they break down, as recently occurred in Tasmania, are devastating for all concerned, and can shut down the research enterprise in a whole state. When things go well, such interactions are producing innovative archaeologies that are no less scientifically rigorous for being open to other ways of seeing the world.
Archaeology and Colonisation
Much has been written about the historical alienation between white Australians and the land they inhabit. There are three identifiable dimensions to this literature. First, Aborigines have either disappeared from or been absorbed into the landscape instead of existing in a historically constructed relationship with it. Second, the land is hostile to white struggles, both spiritual and physical. Third, a land inimical to culture provides a blank slate for the colonisers.
In creating myths of belonging, the colonisers have seen the land in natural terms rather than cultural ones. David Lowenthal wrote in 1978 that "Only if Aboriginal "hallowed ashes" became conspicuous monuments in the Australian landscape could the Aboriginal past form part of the mythic heritage that nature alone now supplies".(2) Nearly two decades on, a number of sites have become such monuments; Lake Mungo, Kakadu and south-west Tasmania are recognised for their cultural as well as natural heritage values.
Non-Aboriginal Australians are part of the way through a process of coming to terms with their country as a prehistoric cultural landscape. It is a slow process because it requires us to acknowledge different dimensions of landscape, both physical and conceptual. Many of our contemporary environmental attitudes can be shown to derive from exactly the same dualistic conceptions (humans as separate from nature) for which we berate our forefathers. If terra nullius was a myth to be discarded in discussions of the ownership of the continent, then it must be similarly discarded when we create and preserve landscapes.
In our East Kimberley research, we are trying to look at different kinds of landscapes at different kinds of timescales—from the last hundred years to the deep prehistoric. This is because our central concern is understanding long-term Aboriginal interactions with the environment. The reality of the research process is that neither the landscapes nor the timescales are approachable via the simple, quick steps suggested by the word "discovery".
Apart from the broader debates about human evolution, there are important reasons to know when people got to Australia. How have the flora and fauna changed since colonisation? What were the relative impacts of climate and humans in shaping the Australian environment? Does the past tell us anything about what is "natural" or "normal" in these ecosystems? Answers to these questions are vital for our decisions about contemporary management strategies, but they don't come easily.
There are no simple crosschecks on the controversial Jinmium TL dates. There are only different views among researchers on the appropriateness and reliability of TL and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), bulk sampling and single grain analysis in a range of sedimentary contexts. Like research into environmental change, this work has been going on for years and will continue to do so.
Continuity and Change
At the more recent end of the timescale we need to problematise, more systematically than we have done, the links between Aborigines as they are represented archaeologically, historically and in the present day. In the far east Kimberley, known to many Australians as Durack country, Aboriginal hunter-gatherers and white pastoralists have been interacting for a hundred years.
The pastoral invasion was rapid and brutal, and was experienced by the parents of Aboriginal people alive today. Pastoralism was followed in little more than a human lifetime by modern communications and information technology. Aboriginal people live in houses, catch 'planes to funerals and use the telephone often. There could apparently be few better examples of the irrevocable contamination of a pristine hunter-gatherer society by the colonial experience.
This is undoubtedly the perception of the majority of the latest wave of colonisers, the tourists who are drawn to a place marketed as Australia's "last frontier", who are always on the lookout for a "real" Aborigine.
The paradox is that while much has changed in Aboriginal society in the north-west Northern Territory, there is also much that has not. We have argued from diverse evidence—oral history, archival history, ethnobotany (with Jenny Atchison), studies of fire usage (with Toni O'Neill and John Marthick), archaeology—that the resilience lies primarily in the centrality of attachments to land and the social relations that express and mediate those attachments.
Artists painting at particular sites in their country while laid off from mustering, craftsmen pressure-flaking Kimberley points from glass, yam gardeners distressed because the country has not been burned properly for a number of years, all express these continuities. Mearns refers to this sort of process as "introducing change to maintain continuity".(3)
This perspective may help explain other characteristics that do not seem to fit the static, economically centred perception of hunter-gatherers held by a large proportion of the Australian population. How is it that remote Aboriginal communities have so readily adopted such things as Toyotas, 'planes, telephones and Web sites, yet remain relatively indifferent to what the rest of us might think of as intermediate technology, for example chairs and shoes? The centrality of communication, information exchange and social possibilities, particularly in relation to land, seems to be the key.
Jinmium is incorporated into a present-day Aboriginal Dreaming story linking a number of rocky outcrops. The outcrops connected by the story are important sources of stone, ochre and yams. While we would not claim to be able to reconstruct the antiquity of this story or any other, we do suggest that there are at least two ways to explore the prehistory of the attachments to place that the story expresses. Crucially, they help us begin the task of linking the conceptual and physical landscapes in the prehistoric record.
The first is to examine the prehistory of the named places in terms of changes in the biophysical landscape. In a landscape that has undergone dramatic change with rises and falls in sea level over tens of thousands of years, the story connects the most permanent features of that landscape, rocky outcrops.
Secondly we argue that important elements of the story have archaeological manifestations—stone and ochre from particular quarries. We argue also that the use of yams is archaeologically visible, albeit less clearly, through starchy residues on stone pounding tools. With limited excavation, we are not yet in a position to assess the regional pattern, but the Jinmium excavation indicates that there were connections between these same places at least 60,000 years ago.
We are not arguing that the Dreaming as perceived by Aboriginal people today can be traced to this time period, but it does provide strong evidence of perceived links between specific places in mentally mapped landscapes. This relates to the spatial organisation and extent of rock art, as seen in work by Paul Tacon, Sven Ouzman and Ken Mulvaney.
Changes in the numbers rewrite a certain kind of history, but it is not the only interesting or important one. The research process is embedded in the cultural changes taking place in Australian society: We should not fear this process, but neither should we expect it to be anything other than complex, longterm and contested.
For most of us, learning to live with the challenges of both physics and politics is part of what makes archaeology exciting. Perhaps the most important thing the discipline can teach the community from which it springs is that these tensions can be creative.
Originally published in Meanjin, vol. 55 no. 4 (1996) and in Outlook, Spring-Summer 1996. Reprinted with permission.