Books His­tory Is Al­ways About the Present

Robyn David­son on Billy Grif­fiths’ ‘Deep Time Dream­ing’

The Monthly (Australia) - - MAY 2018 -

His­tory is the present, they say, and ev­ery gen­er­a­tion writes it anew. Not just gen­er­a­tions, but new con­tes­tants in the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive of any coun­try – con­querors and con­quered, dom­i­na­tors and dom­i­nated. The same holds true for the study of the hu­man past through its ma­te­rial re­mains: ar­chae­ol­ogy. In Aus­tralia, it is the only tool avail­able to con­jure his­tory be­fore the ar­rival of Euro­peans, and that makes it in­her­ently po­lit­i­cal. All cul­tural pro­grams are in­formed by the sen­ti­ments of the age. In the 1950s, those sen­ti­ments were Euro­cen­tric, and still suf­fused with the so­cial Dar­win­ism that des­ig­nated some cul­tures “fit­ter” to sur­vive than oth­ers. We, the im­mi­grants of north­ern ori­gin, who had been on the con­ti­nent for a mere mo­ment, rose to power, thus prov­ing, tau­to­log­i­cally, that we were fit­ter than the peo­ple here be­fore us. At that time, it was as­sumed that Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture was static and only a cou­ple of thou­sand years old, that its peo­ple had re­mained stone-agers and were des­tined to die out. We live in a dif­fer­ent world now, and Billy Grif­fiths’ book Deep Time Dream­ing (Black Inc.; $34.99) charts that chang­ing per­spec­tive through the his­tory of ar­chae­ol­ogy as it has been prac­tised in Aus­tralia since the mid 20th cen­tury. It is a charm­ing book, full of sci­en­tific in­ter­est and bi­o­graph­i­cal anec­dote, but it is also a very im­por­tant one. It is a call not just to won­der, but to po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment. It joins the spate of ex­cel­lent new sci­ence-based books that are el­e­vat­ing the discourse, help­ing us to re­think our re­la­tion­ship with the past, with the en­vi­ron­ment, and with In­dige­nous knowl­edge. It has taken time to erode the Euro­cen­tric view my gen­er­a­tion in­her­ited. Time and pa­tient schol­ar­ship to crack that thin but ob­du­rate up­per layer, in or­der to re­veal the com­plex­i­ties and rich­ness of what lies be­neath. Along with the voices of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple them­selves, these new ways of un­der­stand­ing will raise fur­ther ques­tions to re­solve – a dy­namic process, en­rich­ing no­tions of who and how we are, as in­hab­i­tants of this unique is­land con­ti­nent. We will have to con­tin­u­ally ne­go­ti­ate the in­her­ent ten­sions be­tween sci­ence and cul­ture. To whom does the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal story be­long? To all hu­man­ity, or to the present-day de­scen­dants of the first Aus­tralians? How do we share the his­tory of this place? Such con­tes­ta­tion is both ex­cit­ing and con­fronting. It is, after all, dif­fi­cult to ad­mit one has been wrong. But what a wel­come change from the ig­no­rant tropes that lim­ited the Aus­tralian psy­che for so long. “Aus­tralia’s hu­man his­tory be­gan over 60,000 years ago.” So, con­fi­dently, be­gins Deep Time Dream­ing. Un­til 2017, that state­ment could not have been made. The as­ton­ish­ing fig­ure was the out­come of work done on a site in the Arn­hem Land es­carp­ment – an over­hang that would once have been far from the shore where the first hu­mans landed. The shore­line is closer now, and the land­ing site drowned be­neath the Ara­fura Sea. It is along this el­e­vated edge that it has been pos­si­ble to find ev­i­dence of the first habi­ta­tions in Aus­tralia. With­out writ­ten records, it is the land­scape it­self that must be “read” for this in­for­ma­tion, a land­scape that is con­stantly work­ing to oblit­er­ate its own past. The de­scen­dants of those fam­i­lies have been liv­ing here for more time than it is nat­u­ral for the hu­man mind to grasp. (The phrase “deep time” was coined as a re­sponse to the im­mense scales in which ge­ol­o­gists and

ar­chae­ol­o­gists have to think. And it was the ar­chae­ol­o­gist John Mul­vaney who es­ti­mated that a bil­lion peo­ple have lived on this con­ti­nent.) As they spread south, they colonised ev­ery kind of niche – from frozen south­ern tun­dras, to desert, to jun­gle. They sur­vived ge­o­log­i­cal epochs – the Pleis­tocene and the Holocene – and sea rises of 125 me­tres. They wit­nessed vol­canos erupt­ing and lava flows, the cre­ation of in­land sand dunes, the in­un­da­tion of land bridges. Where it made eco­nomic sense to do so, they prac­tised agri­cul­ture, built vil­lages, con­structed com­pli­cated sys­tems of aquatic traps, joined to­gether in huge groups to ex­ploit boom times, learned how to sur­vive the bust. They traded with each other across the con­ti­nent, trusted their neigh­bours through the shar­ing of stories, and col­lec­tively came up with The Dream­ing, a po­et­i­cal, philo­soph­i­cal and so­cial sys­tem of knowl­edge that is one of the great in­tel­lec­tual achieve­ments of hu­mankind. They must have made mis­takes, but they had an aw­fully long time to learn from them. They changed and di­ver­si­fied, al­ways demon­strat­ing a fan­tas­tic agility in the face of so much en­vi­ron­men­tal pres­sure. It is a his­tory we, as a species, should be proud of. Grif­fiths’ driv­ing pas­sion for ar­chae­ol­ogy (he is in fact a his­to­rian) has taken him to many dig sites across the coun­try, trav­el­ling with ex­perts in the field, and with Abo­rig­i­nal cus­to­di­ans. He was present at the Arn­hem Land digs in 2012 and 2015 as camp cook and in­ter­locu­tor. He and his fel­low work­ers sifted through lay­ers of time un­der the aus­pices of the Mir­rar peo­ple. Their hosts, in turn, were us­ing the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies in their own cam­paign against ura­nium min­ing on their coun­try. Such a long pe­riod of Abo­rig­i­nal pres­ence had been sug­gested back in the ’70s, but sci­en­tists re­mained scep­ti­cal. It wasn’t un­til a new dat­ing technology could be used that the num­ber was ac­cepted, and Na­ture magazine pub­lished its land­mark pa­per last year, ex­tend­ing the time hori­zon of hu­man oc­cu­pa­tion here to 65,000 years. There is a kind of sex­i­ness at­tached to these num­bers: big­ger in­evitably be­ing bet­ter. But Grif­fiths is keen to point out that, more im­por­tantly, Aus­tralian

The de­scen­dants of those fam­i­lies have been liv­ing here for more time than it is nat­u­ral for the hu­man mind to grasp.

pre­his­tory re­veals the va­ri­ety of so­ci­eties that have made this place their own, by song and story, fire and re­source man­age­ment – etch­ing their pres­ence into a land­scape once thought so ex­trater­res­tri­ally pris­tine of ho­minid in­ter­fer­ence. Aus­tralia is now un­der­stood to be pro­foundly hu­man­ised, in­scribed lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively, by cul­ture. It is not just Aus­tralian pre­his­tory that is back­ing fur­ther and fur­ther into “deep time”. Re­cently, the dis­cov­ery of a 200,000-year-old hu­man jaw­bone in Is­rael pushed back the clock on hu­man­ity’s exit out of Africa. Most schol­ars had pre­vi­ously agreed that mod­ern man did not ap­pear in Europe un­til 70,000 years ago. But this new ev­i­dence sug­gests that we were al­ready pop­u­lat­ing the globe rather than still evolv­ing in East Africa. No one knows pre­cisely when homo sapiens be­came the dom­i­nant power on the planet. No one knows when we de­vel­oped our unique abil­ity to tell stories that bind us to­gether and al­low us to co­op­er­ate on a large scale – our best evo­lu­tion­ary sur­vival trick. Sci­ence pro­vides us with not so much facts as the least wrong an­swers, given the ev­i­dence we have, and the tech­nolo­gies avail­able. It is quite pos­si­ble that the time line for hu­man oc­cu­pa­tion in Aus­tralia may in­crease again, the num­ber com­ing even closer to the Abo­rig­i­nal un­der­stand­ing of their his­tory on this con­ti­nent. When Grif­fiths strug­gles to get his head around 60,000 years, a Mut­thi Mut­thi man says, “And it’s a lot more than that. It goes up and up and up un­til for­ever.” Sixty thou­sand years and for­ever are, at least po­et­i­cally, pretty sim­i­lar. But un­til the ’70s, very few peo­ple were ask­ing In­dige­nous Aus­tralians much about any­thing. Some of the early ar­chae­ol­o­gists had never met, nor felt they needed to meet, an Abo­rig­i­nal per­son. The way this has so rad­i­cally al­tered is the thread bind­ing Deep Time Dream­ing – “the re­asser­tion of Abo­rig­i­nal cul­tural iden­tity in the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury”. While non-In­dige­nous Aus­tralians were try­ing to com­pre­hend the time frame of hu­man ex­is­tence here, the de­scen­dants of those hu­mans were trans­form­ing ar­chae­o­log­i­cal prac­tice it­self. They would no longer ac­cept be­ing mute ob­jects of study; they were now liv­ing agents, in charge of or at least in ne­go­ti­a­tion with the peo­ple who stud­ied them, or wanted ac­cess to their land. But the book is not writ­ten as a sem­i­nar, or a polemic. It’s full of stories to pull you in as it in­tro­duces the ec­centrics, ge­niuses and crooks of the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal trade, who, ac­cord­ing to Grif­fiths, have been a pretty ex­tra­or­di­nary bunch. We first meet Pro­fes­sor Vere Gor­don Childe, who, hav­ing de­cided that his best work was done and that “there is noth­ing more I want to do here; noth­ing I feel I ought and could do”, jumped from Govetts Leap in the Blue Moun­tains. “Life ends best,” he said, “when one is strong and happy.” Then we are in­tro­duced to John Mul­vaney, who re­ally got mod­ern Aus­tralian ar­chae­ol­ogy go­ing. It was he who in­tro­duced new ideas of Abo­rig­i­nal an­tiq­uity and cul­tural change to the field. Rhys Jones – some­thing of a show­man – con­trib­uted hugely to the pop­u­lar­i­sa­tion of ar­chae­ol­ogy in the ’70s. He was a jour­nal­ist’s dream, com­ing up with such durable phrases as “fire-stick farm­ing”. He ran into trou­ble later, when he seemed to be propos­ing that the Tas­ma­nian geno­cide had left no de­scen­dants. The book de­scribes the way women came into the field, how they, too, al­tered the tenor of the dis­ci­pline, be­gin­ning with the re­doubtable Is­abel McBryde, who was one of the first prac­ti­tion­ers to con­nect with the tra­di­tional own­ers on whose land she ex­ca­vated.

While non-In­dige­nous Aus­tralians were try­ing to com­pre­hend the time frame of hu­man ex­is­tence here, the de­scen­dants of those hu­mans were trans­form­ing ar­chae­o­log­i­cal prac­tice it­self.

But it isn’t just in­di­vid­u­als who are lauded. Grif­fiths pays trib­ute to the team ef­fort that is the ba­sis of the best sci­en­tific re­search. All in all, Deep Time Dream­ing is a hope­ful book. As Grif­fiths says, if we are to move for­ward, we need to lis­ten to Abo­rig­i­nal voices de­mand­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. We need to un­der­stand the mag­ni­tude of the dis­pos­ses­sion, of what has been lost, and come to terms with it. Ar­chae­ol­ogy is giv­ing us new in­sights into the deep his­tory of our coun­try, and new tools with which to ap­proach the mu­ta­ble, com­plex story of “us”. The fu­ture will be full of sur­prises. It al­ways is. But so will the past.

Rhys Jones at Sis­ters Beach, Tas­ma­nia, c. 1964. Im­age cour­tesy of the Tas­ma­nian Archive and Her­itage Of­fice and the Jack Th­waites Col­lec­tion

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