Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Sulawesi discoveries: where does Australian prehistory fit?

Really a random collection of things.

This painting, "Les Pin, Constantine,"  is by the Canadian artist Frank Milton Armington.(1876-1941). It goes up for auction on 25 January with a projected price range $US 25,000 - 35,000. I was curious because of the time and space overlap (Armington worked mainly in Paris) with the Australian impressionists. In a national sense, Canadian art is much more fragmentary than Australian reflecting questions about Canadian identity linked to Canada's very different history and greater complexity, as well as its proximity to the US.

 I was really interested in the latest archaeological discoveries on Sulawesi. There has been so much new work over the last decade or so that our perceptions of the history of the human race and of human prehistory have been transformed. I am just starting to get my mind round this. It's also changing the context of Aboriginal studies in ways that aren't clear to me, but seem to involve a diminution in its relative importance.

Globally, the quantum of work done has been steadily increasing, whereas in Australia budgets are constrained with archaeology now heavily dominated by rescue digs. Australia is a large country in geographic terms, so resources are thinly spread. Then, too, Australian prehistory is conflicted by the present in ways not found in many other places. You will get some feel for this if you look at the Australian archaeology entry in Wikipedia. I quote:
Archaeological studies or investigations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture in Australia have had many different agendas through time. Initial archaeological investigation was often focused on finding the oldest sites. By the 1970s, archaeological research was concerned with the environment and the way it impacted on humans. In the late 1970s cultural heritage management gained prominence, with the increasing demands by Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups for representation in archaeological research. At a research level the focus shifted to cultural change of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through time. 
Currently, archaeological research places great importance on Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's viewpoints on the land and history of Australia. Consideration is given to Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's belief that archaeological sites are not just capsules of the past but a continuation from the past to the present. Therefore, at a research level significance is placed on the past but also on the importance of the present.
I don't know that I quite agree with this history of Australian archaeological studies, but it draws out the inherent tensions involved. These tensions can be found in other places, but they are very pronounced in this country. The practical effect is the reduce the quantum of archaeological work.

When I visited the prehistory section of the Danish National Museum last year, I was staggered at the advances in knowledge that had occurred. I was also envious. They had created a story, a regional synthesis, of the type I was struggling to write for the area that I was studying.

I said earlier that all this was changing the context of Aboriginal studies in ways that weren't clear to me, but seemed to involve a diminution in its relative importance. I have outlined some of the problems as I have seen them. But now I want to stand back from those issues and look more broadly.

Putting things very simply, the work carried out by Australian archaeologists on Sulawesi suggest that tool using hominins were present there more than 60,000 years before the oldest date we presently have for occupation on the present Australian continent. They may have been a different hominin species,  but it's a staggering find. The issue now becomes how did the Aborigines fit into a pattern of regional and global hominin occupation stretching back far more millennia than anybody realised?

This is not a small question. I lack the scientific knowledge to attempt an answer, if indeed anybody can at the present time.I am merely observing. I would be reasonably sure however that the pace of discovery will continue to shake the very foundations of our view of the human past.


Further to this story, John Hawks had a useful perspective piece, Somebody was on Sulawesi before 118,000 years ago, while the University of New England's Dr Mark Moore who analysed the stone tools recovered from the excavation, reports that the tools were finely crafted with a high degree of skill involved.

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