Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Australian Aborigines - problems with personal perceptions

Today I listened to a chat from an Australian Aboriginal colleague. Some of the things he said I knew to be true, some I did not know whether or not they were correct but found them interesting, and some I knew to be wrong. They had been carried into Aboriginal thinking and then internalised.

A little later I was reading a book on an area, the chapters I think written by professional historians. There was much I did not know about the local Aborigines, but the book suffered because it selected and presented material within a conventional current intellectual frame. This added to its value in one sense, I can use the material for my own purposes, but I felt that it detracted from the primary purpose of the book.

Now both examples reminded me of a recent personal case where my own perceptions were standing between me and the evidence. Because I know the ethno-historical material quite well, I tend to interpret elements of Aboriginal history and thinking in the context of Aboriginal culture as it stood when the Europeans arrived.

This is quite wrong when looking back into the past. Take a simple example. The first Aboriginal colonisers could not have had the same attitudes including closeness to country. After all, this was a new world. Long periods must have been involved in learning enough about the country to populate it with the dream time.   

Just at present I am bogged down in the Holocene period on the Australian continent. In broad terms, this covers the period from around 12,000 years ago to the present.

The archaeological record suggests that the last 3,000 years of this period were a time of substantial change in Aboriginal life and culture. This seems to have included significant population growth and the development of more formally defined territorial boundaries. It was in this period, less than 10% of the total Aboriginal history of the country, that the Aboriginal view of the world that existed in 1788 emerged.


Will said...

Hi Jim,

Have you looked at "The Social Archaeology of Australian Indigenous Societies" (Aboriginal Studies Press, ed. Bruno David)? Worth a browse at the library for information on changes in society in the Holocene.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Will, no I haven't and I must do so. I have come across references to Harry Lourandos' work and thinking on intensification. I find the ideas as presented intuitively plausible, but have yet to follow up.

To a degree, I am trying to stand back from some of the academic debates with their broad sweep to focus just on Northern NSW. More specifically, I keep asking the question is this issue or piece of evidence relvant?