Future of aboriginal Australians

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There is a lot of debate about the history and antiquity of human settlement in Australia. The question of establishing the date of earliest settlement has become highly charged. There is a raging academic controversy over dating and identifying a whole school of cave art in Arnhem Land. One academic has even asserted that these paintings were produced by some people other than the ancestors of the present Aboriginal inhabitants, implying that these forebears would have been too primitive to produce such complex and spectacular works of art. Tim Flannery has constructed a sweeping narrative, attractive to many, that ancient Australians almost single-handedly, by hunting and with the overuse of fire, wiped out most of the extinct large animals such as the dyptodron. This value-loaded story is contested by other scientists and scholars such as Professor Marcia Langton, Dr David Bowman, Professor John Chappell, John Benson and James Kohen, author of Aboriginal Environmental Impacts. Some of them make the powerful methodological point that its an extraordinarily wide-ranging, ideologically driven conclusion from very limited and contradictory evidence.

A book by multi-disciplinary scientist Dr David Horton is very important in this context. While Dr. Horton is a little slow to start, and just a bit repetitive, he assembles from a number of inter-related scientific spheres quite convincing evidence that the associated theories characterising ancient Aboriginal populations as "firestick farmers", and attributing to these ancient populations the extermination of the megafauna, are both quite wrong. These two theories have developed among some academics over many years and been broadly popularised by Tim Flannery. Dr Horton advances, and devastatingly documents from archaeology, a much more convincing narrative in which ancient Aboriginal populations were a more modest part of the ecosystem in Pleistocene Australia and used fire more sparingly than Flannery and Pyne, etc, say.

The decisive episode in the extinction of the big animals was the uniquely extreme desertification event in Australasia-Sahul about 25,000 years ago. Horton very effectively points out how the romantic narrative of early Aboriginal populations as "firestick farmers" and successful hunters and exterminators of the dyptrodon and the giant kangaroo is often used to minimise the importance of the devastation of the environment associated with the British conquest of Australia.

Certain basic facts about Australian prehistory are clear. A continent-wide Aboriginal society of considerable cultural complexity and with a number of variations, has existed for a very long time, at least 40,000 and probably even 60,000 years. Secondly, Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania were one continent (called by scientists Sahul) for a considerable part of this time, and were finally separated at the end of the last ice age, about 6000 years ago. A fair amount of contact took place between some parts of northern Australia and other places. For instance, contact and cultural influences from New Guinea and the Torres Straits, took place with Aborigines in the Cape York area, and considerable contact, probably for up to 500 years, existed between Malay fishermen from Macassar and Aboriginals in Arnhem Land, with much cultural interchange, and even a certain amount of intermarriage.

Paul Sheehans book Amongst the Barbarians promotes a dubious version of Australasian prehistory that devalues the cultural achievements of the first Australasians

Part of the methodology of Paul Sheehans populist book is that he finds "scholars" and "authorities" that generally devalue and criticise the culture and achievements of the people that he regards as divisive: Asian migrants, multiculturalists, Aborigines, etc. His "experts" on Aboriginal culture are David Foster, Tim Flannery and an American academic, one Stephen J. Pyne, who appears on the first four pages of Amongst the Barbarians. Pynes theory is that the Australian Aboriginals were the greatest firebugs in human history. In passing, Pyne says: "An entire continent bypassed the Neolithic revolution, which had spread agriculture to the Old World. Unlike the Americas no autonomous agricultural centres developed in Australia."

In fact, Australian prehistory is by no means that simple. Pyne discloses a certain ignorance. Australia and New Guinea were one continent until 6000 years ago and all experts agree that agriculture developed in the New Guinea highlands at least 9000 years ago and probably earlier. There are some real puzzles in the prehistory of Australia and Sahul, one of which is why agriculture did not spread overland to other parts of Sahul, and also why there is such a distinct linguistic and cultural break between Melanesian culture in New Guinea and Aboriginal culture in Australia. Nevertheless, there was one independent development of agriculture in Australasia/Sahul, and that was in New Guinea.

Our continent did not bypass the Neolithic revolution, as Pyne and Sheehan say. They might have known this had they read, for instance, A Prehistory of Australia, New Guinea and Sahul by Peter White and James OConnell (Academic Publishers, December 1982), or the more recent Archaeology of Aboriginal Australia: A Reader, edited by Tim Murray (Allen and Unwin, 1998).

So much for Sheehans experts, some of whome seem to be ignorant of the basic literature in the field. The inquiry into Australasian prehistory has really just begun. In reality, the achievements of Aboriginal society in Australia, and Melanesian society in New Guinea were quite considerable. The very first, and most amazing achievement, was getting to the continent at all, 60,000 years ago or thereabouts. The ancestors of Aboriginal and Melanesian society seem to have constructed boats or rafts and developed sufficient sailing skills to cross the large sea gap between Asia and Sahul.

From the time of white settlement in 1788, the contact between white Australia and Aboriginal Australia has been brutal, ruthless and imperial, qualified by constant and sometimes fairly effective Aboriginal resistance to white conquest. Keith Willeys useful book, When the Sky Fell Down is a comprehensive reconstruction of what can be deduced about the destruction of Aboriginal society in the Sydney region. Eric Wilmots wonderful novel, Pemulwuy, the Rainbow Warrior (Sydney Weldons, 1987) is an excellent artistic attempt to re-create the world of the well-documented initial Aboriginal military resistance to white conquest.

This resistance, undermined and finally defeated by a combination of the military superiority in weapons and resources of the invaders, and the devastating impact of the diseases introduced from white settlement into populations that didnt have immunity to those diseases, recurs throughout the history of white settlement all over Australia.

The disastrous impact of European diseases on Aboriginal peoples without immunities, is a common story in the Americas, the Pacific and Australasia, but that does not stop some historical revisionists even attempting to alter this history. There is even one medical historian, who laborioriously tries to construct a narrative in which smallpox didnt spread from white settlement, as almost all the witnesses at the time said it did, but came overland from the Malay contact with Arnhem Land. Predictably he, too, becomes one of Sheehans "experts".

In this context, Sheehan ignores the definitive book on this topic, Our Original Aggression, by the late Noel Butlin, the distinguished Australian statistician and economist (after whom the Noel Butlin Archives in Canberra are named), published in 1983, and his Economics and the Dreamtime (ANU Press, 1994). In these thoroughly reputable and pretty well unanswerable books, Butlin established quite clearly from the records that the epidemics close to the settled areas of Australia spread from the settled areas.

He also, as part of his research, using his skills as a statistician, satisfactorily proved for most geographers and anthropologists that the number of Aborigines in Australia at the time of settlement was probably between 600,000 and a million, many more than the 300,000 previously accepted as the likely figure.

Throughout the 19th century, as white settlement spread, there was a frequent effort on the part of British colonial authorities in Australia to kill off the Aboriginals, interspersed with much more episodic and less effective moments of attempting to "protect" them. Sometimes the protection was almost as bad as the more overt attempts to exterminate. In Tasmania, the Protector of Aborigines, the earnest and fairly well-intentioned George Augustus Robinson, eventually was forced, more of less by circumstance, to preside over a desperate scheme to create a reservation for the surviving Tasmanians, which ended up being on a bleak and unpleasant island, unsuitable for such a purpose, where the surviving full-blood Aboriginal Tasmanians died out, the last survivor being Truganini.

The present Tasmanian Aboriginal community is descended mainly from a mixed-blood community that developed on the islands of Bass Strait from white sealers and the Tasmanian women who they seized during the brutal era of European conquest of Tasmania. Perhaps the most vicious, appalling but effective feature of this war of extermination and conquest, was t