Saturday, February 17, 2007

Stocktake - Belshaw Writings on Australian Aborgines 3: Australian Prehistory


Note to reader: I have done a minor update on this post to strengthen focus and remove minor errors.

I began my work on the Aborigines at the University of New England in the 1960s as part of Isabel McBryde's pioneering team (photo).

I have mentioned Isabel many times in posts, far too many to list here. I will write a proper post on her at some point.

UNE then had a broad based history course that would, I suspect, put most university history courses today to shame. The first full year course was intended to provide base for late historical studies and so covered a broad expanse of time beginning with archaeology and prehistory.

UNE also had a powerful history faculty.

Mick Williams, later professor at ANU, was head of Department, while Russel Ward of Australian Legend fame was also a professor. Russell used to muse sometimes about the apparent irony that he should be blocked from a post at the University of NSW because of his one time Communist Party affiliations - yes, political correctness of various forms has been around for a while - only to be appointed to a university with strong Country Party affiliations. And with no objections raised!

There were close links between staff and students, as well as a strong focus on Australian and New England regional studies. This fitted Isabel's approach. With the backing of the History Department she gathered students around her, including myself.

Under the guidance of Professor Mulvaney, she had formed the view that the only way to understand the aboriginal past was by a series of regional studies. It was absurd to think that you could establish Australia wide cultural patterns in a continent of such size, geographical diversity and and length of Aboriginal past with a few geographically isolated digs. You had to focus at regional level first, and then build up.

Now here I want to point you to one conclusion in my post of 20 December:

This lead me to a simple conclusion. We should stop talking about specific aboriginal problems as though all aborigines were a uniform group quite distinct from the broader community, but instead should focus on disentangling the facts so that we knew just what we were really talking about.

This - the importance of disentangling the facts- is a theme I will be returning too, together with the importance of focusing on problems at a regional or local level.

Growth in UNE Studies

Under Isabel's influence, New England studies linked to the Aborigines increased rapidly.

If you look at the list of UNE archaeology postgraduate theses - there were other theses dealing in part with Aboriginal- European relations that I think are still listed under history - you will see that Sharon Sullivan's 1964 honours study on the The material culture of the Aborigines of the Richmond and Tweed Rivers of northern NSW at the time of first white settlement was the first.

This was followed in 1965 by Brice's Litt. B thesis (The interpretation of the art of the hunter societies of Europe and Australia) and then in 1966, the first year that prehistory was offered as part of the history honours program, by three honours theses including mine.

Helen Brayshaw wrote on Some Aspects of the material culture of the Aborigines of the Hunter Valley at the time of first white settlement in the area, Bryan Harrison wrote on The Myall Creek massacre and its significance in the controversy over the Aborigines during Australia's early squatting period, while I wrote on The economic basis of Aboriginal life in Northern NSW in the nineteenth century looking at the economic basis of aboriginal life as the time of European intrusion.

In 1978 Isabel published a book of essays, Records of Time Past (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies) mainly written by her former students. It included an article of mine, Population distribution and the pattern of seasonal movement in Northern NSW, drawn from my original work.

By then, Isabel's students had written 22 theses on the Aborigines, 4 Litt.B's, 16 BA honours and 2 MAs. Isabel herself was awarded her PhD - An archaeology survey of the New England Region, NSW - in 1967. In all, a fair body of work for such a short period.

Aboriginal Studies in the Sixties

There is a current urban myth that Australians of the past did not know about the Aborigines.

I went to primary school in the 1950s. There we practised Aboriginal art. I also had family that gave me books about the Aborigines from Aboriginal Myths and Legends (still in print) to Charles and Elsie Chauvel's book. I do not remember the title at this distance. I knew about Jedda. I read the books of Ion Idriess. So I knew about the Aborigines from several different perspectives.

However, that view was a partial one, focused on the Aborigines' role as the traditional occupiers of the continent. I knew very little of current Aboriginal life, almost nothing about the history of the Aborigines since the coming of the Europeans. Now, looking back, I can understand the resentment of Aboriginal children at school at the time exposed to the European view of their people.

All that said, traditional Aboriginal life and history, however partial my view, was real to me in a way that is not true to my daughters today, although they know far more about the injustices done the aborigines and indeed know more people of aboriginal ancestry than I did at their age.

In some ways, I was lucky to begin my studies when I did. I came to them fresh, unencumbered by all the complexity that now attaches to Aboriginal Studies or discussions on Aboriginal issues. This was also a period of great upsurge in interest in the aborigines, the beginning of understanding of the wrongs that had been done, providing a counterpoint to my work. All this made it a voyage of discovery.

There was not a lot of existing material to work from when I came to start my research on the economic structure of traditional Aboriginal life in New England.

As I pointed out in my post, Malcolm Calley, Anthropology and Australia's Aborigines, on the New England Australia blog, it was anthropologists rather than historians who had pioneered aboriginal studies and who had also taken the lead in trying to raise community interest in aboriginal issues. Consistent with this, I found that there was very little historical research that I could draw from other than Sharon Sullivan's thesis and some local histories.

This did not worry me. I was very happy combining economics, anthropology and history in a way that had become something of a family tradition, working with anthropological and archaeological material on one side, historical records on the other.

In doing so I had to exercise some care. My focus meant that I was pushing the boundaries of the traditional historical form. In addition, I was also challenging some conventional perceptions including the idea common among left wing historians that the Aborigines were in some ways an example of primitive communism. I didn't worry too much, but it meant that there were some things that I could not do.

The Richness of Traditional Aboriginal Life

As I proceeded, I was amazed and fascinated at the complexity and sophistication of traditional economic life.

When in first year we studied prehistory, we did so in a frame set by concepts such as the the three ages - stone, bronze and iron - and the coming of the agrarian revolution. The Aborigines were slotted into this model as stone age hunter gatherers. In fact, the traditional aborigines were no mere simple hunter gatherers.

A few examples to illustrate my point.

In my post, Pilliga Fires, on the New England Australia blog I made the point that the Australia seen by the first Europeans was a man modified landscape. Our Aboriginal ancestors did not just sit lightly on the landscape leaving it unchanged, they modified it to better suit their way of life.

Fire was a key tool. Fire could be used to help drive animals to waiting hunters. Fire was also used to encourage green pick (the fresh shoots that emerged after the blaze) to attract kangaroos.

So when Europeans arrived they in turn changed the landscape not just through things such as land clearing, but by changing the incidence of fire and the harvesting of native animals. More recently, we have changed the landscape again through, among other things, the large scale creation of national parks.

I later found with real interest that there was substantial reluctance to accept that the Aborigines changed the landscape, especially among those supporting the conservation movement.

In another post on the New England Australia blog, The Poetry of Judith Wright - Bora Ring, I make the point that the Aborigines were sophisticated builders within the limits set by their tools, quoting Sandra Bowdler's description of the Bora Rings of New England and South East Queensland.


Aboriginal building extended well beyond the Bora Rings. The Aboriginal Fish traps at Brewarrina (photo) are another example. This was a major structure that survived for thousands of years.

I remember one interesting but mysterious field trip trip in which we went to investigate a stone path.

We knew from Isabel's work that the path could not have been built by Europeans. The path had only been discovered when a road was cut through the bush. No matter how hard we searched, there was only one substantial strip with no way of knowing where it had gone, why or when.

The aborigines also maintained a complex trading system under which things such as axes from the Moore Creek quarry could spread over very wide distances.

I was also surprised at the size of New England's Aboriginal population, especially along the rich coastal strip. To make estimates, I had to work from reports of gatherings, from estimates made at the time by European observers, relating this to what I knew of varying natural resources.

My work here along with others was later savagely criticised by Professor Butlin. I no longer have the reference here, but there was methodological justice in his points. However, I felt that the criticism missed a key point.

At the time I was writing there was a common perception that the total Australian Aboriginal population in pre-European times was around 300,000 thinly spread across a vast continent. My work showed that Aboriginal populations in one area were significantly greater than might be expected given the original perception. I was also able to show, as might have been expected, that the density of the Aboriginal population across New England varied very significantly.

European Perceptions, Aboriginal Responses

Writing an ethno-historical thesis meant that European writings of one type or another and especially early settler records and recollections were my primary source materials. Here my interest lay not in European perceptions of the Aborigines as such, although I necessarily formed views on this, but in trying to pierce the European veil to determine the patterns of traditional aboriginal economic life.

Midway through my work I came across Malcolm Calley's PhD thesis on Bandjalang Social Organisation. This was a revelation to me.

As I said in my post on Malcolm, there was a distrust among historians of oral history. There was also a common belief that modern Aborigines in Eastern Australia had lost their knowledge of the tribal culture.

Malcolm's work showed that this was not true. I had no idea of the extent to which oral history had been retained. I had also not realised the extent to which traditional languages were still known, if in some cases by a small and diminishing number of older people. Here I have spoken of the work of Bill Hoddinnott in trying to record details of remnant languages before they were lost.

I think it a national tragedy that our European blindness prevented us recording details of Aboriginal history and of the Aboriginal experience from elders whose life span bridged across from the traditional past to the then present.

However, all this was to raise another issue.

At the time I wrote my thesis, land rights were still in the future while the rise of black consciousness was still in its early days. I had no idea that my thesis and subsequent article would become cited references in various heritage studies nor of the minefield that Aboriginal Studies would become as people tried to balance conflicting interests and rights. I think that I would have been terrified had I known,

In my post on Malcolm Calley I quoted the words of Rod Hagen:

"Any anthropologist who has worked on Native Title claims, or similar activity, in south eastern Australia is likely to have come across the anger of indigenous groups confronted with "academic" interpretations of their rights interests, customs and traditions which differ from their own view of these important aspects of their lives ....

Indigenous groups, not surprisingly , are highly indignant about having their claims, and the primarily oral traditions on which they are based, judged against the writings of the initial colonisers themselves and on occasion react even more strongly against later "academic" interpretations of territorial interests."

This Aboriginal reaction is hardly surprising given the position I have described. However, it and the response to it and to broader Aboriginal issues by academics and writers can create real difficulties for objective analysis.

Previous Posts in this Series

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Belshaw! Good Stuff. It is eye and mind opening when when really gets into the think of knowledge about "primative" cultures. Allow me a poetic response - Your post makes the simple complex and the complex simple. - Your secret admirer

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you secret admirer. I am too tired tonight to respond properly. I will do so later.

Thank you, too, Lexcen for your post. I want to do a new post linked to your comments. I will try to do so tomorrow.

Adrian said...

Thanks for this!

I'm fascinated by your point that "Australians of the past did not know about the Aborigines". As you indicate, today's indigenous studies might not be a complete riposte to past ignorance so much as a refinement of practices that already existed in the 60's. This is a perspective I've never considered before.

ninglun said...

This is an important series, Jim, and I endorse your secret admirer's comment. I have added this to my Aboriginal Australia page:

Jim Belshaw's Personal Reflections now has some very substantial entries on Aboriginal Australia from what might be called a somewhat conservative viewpoint (in some respects) but always thoughtful and clear-sighted.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Adrian and Neil. More later.