In July, a new date was published that pushed the original chapters of Australian history back to 65,000 years ago. It is the latest development in an era of revolution that has gripped the nation for the past half century.
By the 1950s, it was widely believed that the first Australians had reached this continent just a few thousand years earlier. They were considered “primitive” – a fossilized stage in human evolution – but not necessarily ancient.
In the decades since, indigenous history has been pushed back to the gloomy extent of deep time. While humans have lived in Australia, volcanoes have erupted, dunefields have formed, glaciers have melted and sea levels have risen by about 125 meters, turning Lake Carpentaria into a bay and the Bassian Plain into a strait.
How do we deal with a story that spans 65,000 years? There is a “gee whiz” factor on any dates that goes beyond the usual understanding of our time as a living experience. Human experiences are reduced to numbers. And other than being “long ago”, it is difficult to understand the imagination.
It is very easy to approach this story, as we could read the Guinness Book of World Records, to search over the vast expanse of time for easily identifiable “firsts”: the oldest place, the oldest tool, the most extreme conditions. The rich outlines of Australia’s natural and cultural history are tarnished by the mentality that older people are better.
For political leaders, old dates give a veneer of antiquity to a young settler nation. For scientists, they push the history of Australia into a world human history and allow us to see ourselves as a species. For Indigenous Australians, they may be regarded as an important point of cultural pride or as completely irrelevant. Their answers are varied.
Further reading: Lighted tools and dyes tell a new 65,000-year-old story of people in Australia
Recently, one of us, Lynette Russell, asked 35 Aboriginal friends and colleagues of different ages, genders and backgrounds for their thoughts on Australia’s deep history.
Many of the answers were statements of cultural affirmation (“We are always here” or “It became Aboriginal here”), while others considered the long history of the natives on this continent through the lens of continuity, boasting of being a member of “the oldest active population in the world “and” the oldest civilization in the world “.
As expressions of identity, these are strong statements. But when others simply repeat such notions as a historical event, they run the risk of suggesting that Aboriginal culture has frozen over time. We must be careful not to repeat the language of the older cultural evolutionists, who believed, in the famous words of Robert Pulleine, that the Aboriginal people were “an unchanging people living in an unchanging environment.”
This article attempts to transcend the view of ancient Australia as a timeless and traditional foundation story to explore the ways in which scientists and humanists deal with the deep past as a transformative human history.
Memories of time
The revolution in the Australian calendar dates back to the advent of radiocarbon dating to the mid-20th century. Nuclear chemist Willard Libby first realized the dating potential of carbon-14 isotopes while working on the Manhattan Project (which also produced the atomic bomb). In 1949, he and James Arnold described a way to date organic materials aged from a few hundred years to tens of thousands of years. The key was to measure the memories of the time held in the carbon atoms.
By comparing the decay isotope, carbon-14, with the stable isotope, carbon-12, they were able to measure the age of a sample with relative accuracy. The rate of decomposition and the amount of carbon-14 provided the date.
“A new time machine has been invented,” said Australian archaeologist John Mulvaney when he realized the consequences of the method. In 1962, he used the new technique at Kenniff Cave in the central highlands of Queensland and was surprised to discover that Australia had been occupied during the last Ice Age. The 19,000-year-old dates overturned the long-held idea that Australia was the last continent inhabited by modern humans, and the objects he unearthed in his excavations revealed a rich history of cultural adaptation.
Over the next decade, at Lake Mungo, Australia’s human history was pushed back to the limits of radiocarbon dating. A sample from Spit 17 of the Mulvaney and Wilfred Shawcross excavations on Lake Mungo revealed that the ancestors of the Mutthi Mutthi, Ngyiampaa and Paakantji peoples had developed in these lakes 40,000 years ago. Geomorphologist Jim Bowler also revealed the dramatic environmental fluctuations these people experienced: what is now a dusty and dry landscape was then a fertile lake system with over 1000 km2 of open water.
Read more The Mungo man returns home and there is much more he can teach us about ancient Australia
The 40,000-year-old date had a profound public impact and heralded the arrival of Australian archeology. The phrase “40,000 years” quickly appeared on banners outside the Canberra Stage Embassy, in songs by Aboriginal musicians, and in campaigns for land. When the twentieth European settlement was marked on January 26, 1988, thousands of Australians protested the celebrations with posters reading “White Australia has a Black History” and “We have been here for 40,000 years for 200 years”. The comparison increased the act of expulsion.
The discovery of 65,000 years of human occupation at the Madjedbebe refuge on Mirrar land, on the edge of the Arnhem mountain range, is based on a different dating method: the optical stimulation of luminosity. This technique analyzes individual grains of sand and the load that accumulates in the quartz crystal lattice over time. By releasing and measuring this charge, geochronologists are able to reveal the moment when a grain of sand was last exposed to sunlight.
The archeological site in Madjedbebe is much more than an old date. reveals a long and varied history of human occupation, with indications of deep cultural and ecological connections throughout the landscape, cutting-edge Ice Age technology (like the former ax in the world) and dramatic environmental changes.
Perhaps more cautiously, throughout the deposition, even in the lower strata, archaeologists have found ocher lipsticks: a powerful expression of artistic effort and cultural achievement.
Following the discovery, in August 2017, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was seized on the new date in his speech in Garma, highlighting the potential of this profound story of political reconciliation:
I am full of optimism for our future together as a reconciled Australia. Last month, scientists and researchers revealed new evidence that our First Australians have been here on earth for 65,000 years.
.This news is a point of great pride for our nation. I rejoice in this as we celebrate Indigenous cultures and our heritage as our culture and heritage – uniquely Australian.
Although Turnbull enjoys the story, his speech avoids reflecting on the more recent past. The following is a statement of reconciliation that does not address the alienation it seeks to overcome. It therefore opens until it is rejected as merely a prolonged fullness.
We can not deal with the last 65,000 years without recognizing the turbulent road of the last two centuries.
A story of rupture and resilience
When Europeans arrived in Australia in the 17th and 18th centuries, they set foot on land inhabited by thousands of generations of indigenous men and women. These groups lived along the coast and inland and traveled in the mountains and plane trees. developed in the harsh deserts and were concentrated in large numbers along rivers and streams.
Although Australia is a mainland country, it is home to hundreds of different nations, over 200 language groups and a huge variety of cultural, geographical and ecological regions. For the newcomers, these people were simply considered “locals” and despite the huge cultural diversity in very different environmental zones, the different groups were referred to as “the Aborigines”.
There is a similar tendency today to homogenize the deep history of the first Australians. Australia’s dynamic natural and cultural history is often obscured by the tropics of time. Our tourism campaigns continue to tell us that this is the land of “never ever”, the homeland of “ancient traditions” and “one of the oldest zones in the world”.
Such slogans imply the lack of change and hide the remarkable variety of human experiences on this continent for tens of thousands of years. While there is great continuity in the cultural history of indigenous peoples, theirs is also a history of rupture and resilience.
The discovery of old dates in Madjedbebe does not make the history of the place more or less important. It just reminds us that science, like history, is an ongoing research. All it takes is a new presumption to activate in our head what we thought we knew. Science is a journey and knowledge evolves.
Australia’s epic history will continue to shift with the discovery of new locations and new techniques and with the involvement and collaboration of different worldviews. It is a story that can only be told through the conduct of different cultures and different disciplines. bridging the gap between science and the humanities and translating numbers and data sets into narratives that convey the incredible depth and variety of human experience on this continent.
The authors of this article will continue this discussion at a public event in Wollongong on Friday, November 24, 2017 at the annual meeting of the Australasian Association for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science. There will be two other sets of speakers, which will explore topics around precision medicine and artificial intelligence.