Thursday, April 16, 2009

Train Reading Josephine Flood's Archaeology of the Dreamtime


Image:  The diprotodon, one of Australia's now vanished megafauna, was a hippopotamus-sized marsupial, most closely related to the wombat.

My train reading has shifted to Josephine Flood's Archaeology of the Dreamtime (JB Publishing, Marleston, 2004). My original notes on New England in the Pleistocene drew very heavily from John Mulvaney and Johan Kamminga's Prehistory of Australia and I wanted to get an alternative view.

I am treating the previous paper as a work in progress, adding proper footnotes as I go along so that it becomes a proper piece of work from an academic perspective. That way I have something that can be published on its own and/or form part of my history of New England.

The two books were originally written about the same time, have both been updated, and have a lot of core material in common. Yet they also come from different perspectives, taking varying views on particular issues. Age of Aboriginal colonisation of the continent is one, with Flood favouring an earlier date.

Reading both, as well as the material I looked at in supporting web searches, I was struck by the way in which Aboriginal history/pre-history is enmeshed in other debates. Take, as an example, the question of the extinction of Australia's megafauna.

On the surface, this seems a simple enough issue. The megafauna vanished during a period that included both major climate change and the arrival of the Aborigines. A reasonable working hypothesis would be that both might have contributed. From that point, its a matter for research and analysis based on the evolving evidence. In fact, it's a matter of controversy.

Part of the debate is professional. I enjoy this aspect. Australian archaeology is a small world in which some admixture of the personal and professional is inevitable, aided by the uncertainties of evidence and of scientific technique. However, part of the debate within and especially as it spreads beyond the profession appears to link to other issues, deeply held views about the role  of the Aborigines and of the perceived relationships between the Aborigines and the environment. At this level, the debate has little to do with history, much to do with current conflicts in ideas. This is the Aborigines as symbols, not as a historical people.

These conflicts in ideas are interesting and no-doubt will be the subject of many theses someday . However, from my viewpoint they are something of a distraction in trying to understand the history. They stand between me and the "realities" I am trying to discover.

I have put the word realities in inverted commas because understanding is always partial even when dealing with the apparently familiar, more so when dealing with the unfamiliar.

In Stranger Among the Martu, Will Owen reviews the experiences  of Maureen Helen as a nurse in the remote Western Australia settlement of Jigalong. The post brings out the difficulties that can arise in understanding another culture.

In the type of history/pre-history that I am trying to study at present, it is not possible to understand the type of social detail that comes through in Maureen Helen's story. However, it is possible to focus on the patterns and relationships suggested by the evidence . 


Lexcen said...

Tim Flannery has an interesting view on aborigines and extinct species in The Future Eaters.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Lexcen. I must read the book at some point. It gets referred to a lot.