Dark Emu author Bruce Pascoe deconstructs over-simplified portrayals of Indigenous life and the discoveries of this country's first people.
Pascoe's work indicates that Aboriginal people right across the continent were using domesticated plants, sowing, harvesting, irrigating and storing – behaviours inconsistent with the hunter-gatherer assessment. In this lecture, he also addressed the underlying agendas that have shaped the narrative regarding Australia’s 60,000 years of history.
Pascoe was joined by special guest Dr Michael Westaway, archaeologist and biological anthropologist, who discussed his research and findings from work at both Aboriginal sites and with Australia's megafauna.
"I was told not to use the word 'Aboriginal' and the word 'agriculture' in the same sentence, certainly not side-by-side. Because 'It didn't happen Bruce. It didn't happen'. And it was a fortunate day...because it made me more determined to get to the bottom of these aberrant pieces of information, which were indicating that Aboriginal people were harvesting grains." — Bruce Pascoe.
Laura McBride: Good afternoon everybody and welcome to the Australian Museum. I'd like to start by first acknowledging the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation whose land we meet upon today. I'd like to pay my respect to elders both past and present, and extend that respect to all of you who have joined us for this important lecture and following conversation today.
We're lucky enough to be joined by Bruce Pascoe, a Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian writer who has brought us some great books including Fog a Dox, Convincing Ground and Bloke, to name a few. But it's his most recent work, Dark Emu: Black Seeds, Agriculture or Accident?that has brought us here today.
Dark Emuquestions the popular perception of Aboriginal people living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in pre-colonised Australia. The book illustrates the vast amount of evidence in both colonial records, universities and museums, including this one, that illustrate First Australians as having complex systems of land maintenance right across the continent—including plant domestication, sowing, harvesting, irrigating and storing—behaviours inconsistent with the hunter-gatherer assessment.
Importantly today we'll be considering the underlying agendas that have shaped the narrative regarding Australia's 60,000 years of history and why it's important to have these discussions; and their potential to help us with contemporary social and environmental issues.
Today we are also joined by a special guest, Dr Michael Westaway, archaeologist, biological anthropologist and senior research fellow at Griffith University in Brisbane, whose research from both Aboriginal sites and with Australia's megafauna also supports those arguments brought forward inDark Emu. He'll discuss some of this research with us today.
In regards to the structure: approximately the first hour we'll hear from both Bruce and Michael and have time to take questions from the audience. Following this, we invite you to view some of these very special objects that we've brought out from our collections today. These have never before been seen by the public. And Bruce will also be signing copies of Dark Emuif you brought yours along. But if you didn't bring yours along, we're selling them in our museum store, just through the atrium. Following the talk we will have a drink available for each ticket-holder and some food just outside here in Garrigarang, and we also invite you to view our Indigenous exhibitions today. There are a few staff, we'll either have lanyards or name badges on, and feel free to come down, have conversations with us or ask us any questions. Thank you.
Bruce Pascoe: I'd also like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and the land itself where we're gathered today, and all the people in the audience for coming along on a Sunday to talk about Australia. I'd like to acknowledge the young Aboriginal people here from not just the museum staff but those who have just come along. It's so heartening to see you here, and I'd like to thank Alison, who Laura and I saw on a very special day that I'll talk to you about a bit later on, who was very generous with her time and her interaction with us on that day.
I'd also like to acknowledge Michael. Michael has engaged in some work that you'll all be hearing about and you'll be flabbergasted by that work and you'll be amazed at how significant it is. All the work that Michael will talk to you about today is also incredibly interesting and incredibly important for this country. But what's coming, it'll change your whole attitude to the life of humans on Earth, and I'm very proud to have been party to a conversation with Laura and Michael earlier today. Malcolm Turnbull was right—it is a very exciting time to be an Australian. It's true, because over the next five years some things are going to be revealed which will make us all love our country so much more, and we'll be so much more knowledgeable about our country. And it will be the end of going overseas and bragging about Vegemite.
The image on the screen is Mount Gingera, and that's the travel of the Rainbow Serpent, as the Rainbow Serpent travels from Cape York down through New South Wales across the Alps and gets to Mount Gingera. And these are the eggs of the Rainbow Serpent. The Serpent then moves on through South Australia, Western Australia and the Serpent's head rests on Rottnest Island.
This is not just a cute story about a snake making the land. It explains the whole of life in Australia, and we're working on that song line and on that story so that we can tell it as a coherent whole to Australia, because it is a spiritual story, it is a story of the land but it is so significant for all of us, all of us Australians here to know that story. Because it is a story that explains life.
When I first started writing essays about some aberrant information that I found, I was taken aside by some professors of history, anthropology and archaeology and I was told not to use the word 'Aboriginal' and the word 'agriculture' in the same sentence, certainly not side by side, because, 'It didn't happen, Bruce. It didn't happen.' And it was a fortunate day because it made me even more determined—I am my grandmother's grandson—it made me more determined to get to the bottom of these aberrant pieces of information which were indicating that Aboriginal people were harvesting grains.
And leaving that meeting, I went to the first second-hand bookshop I could find in Canberra and I walked to the back of the shop, because all Australian history is at the back of the shop. British history's at the front of the shop. And I purchased the first explorer's journal I could find there and it was Thomas Mitchell's Journeys into Tropical Australia.
Around about page 80 I read these lines: 'I now rode through nine miles of stooked grain.' Stooked grain. I didn't need any more information. Here's the first European into the country on the Barwon River and he's riding through stooked grain. His fellow explorers, so-called explorers, who were discovering a country where people are stooking grain, they said it looked like an English field at harvest. And I thought, why, why am I not allowed to talk about Aboriginal agriculture?
I then got home to Mallacoota, where the internet is incredibly dodgy, and I Googled Aboriginal grain harvests. The first 32 items that came up were all about Australian wheat harvests of the last 30 or 40 years, and about item 33 was an essay by Bill Gammage. Item 34 was this map. Norman Tindale is an American archaeologist who came out here and was interested in Aboriginal people, which made him the laughing stock of his Australian peers because the attitude…which I can explain by when I went to university I wanted to study Australian history and the history department at Melbourne University, the best university in the country, so they say, they said, 'Look, we don't teach Australian history because nothing happened.' And this happened, and it was an American who discovered it.
Tindale looked at all the references that early pioneers, early settlers (I'm trying to not use those words but they do crop up in your brain) all the references those people made to grain harvests by Aboriginal people, and they are the solid black line that goes through the very centre of Australia. It represents six times, five times the size of the current Australian Wheat Belt which you can see the dotted line in the southwest corner, the dotted line in the southeast corner.
Aboriginal people were growing grain and harvesting grain in sand. These plants are going to be incredibly important to us as a nation. We'll be eating bread with these grains in them, the flour from those grains, rather, over the next five years. They're incredibly important because they're perennial plants. You don't have to plough the land once you have your crop established, as the Aboriginal people had established it. And the root mass is so large that it sequesters an incredible amount of carbon. Farmers are going to be paid in Australia to grow these plants simply because of their carbon sequestration. And we know nothing about them.
Sir Thomas Mitchell's plant, we believe, is what is now called Mitchell grass. The one he rode through when Charles Sturt was saved from certain death by Aboriginal people who gave him water and fed him bread which he said was the 'sweetest and lightest cake he'd ever eaten.' We don't know what that plant is. We've got 100 cooking shows in Australia at the moment. Not one of them has ever mentioned that plant. We just don't know what it is.
I think I know what it is, but how come, in a country with departments of agriculture and a hundred universities and a hundred agriculture departments in those universities, that no one has enquired about that plant. It's astounding what our education will do to us.
I'm an Aboriginal man and I grew up believing what I was taught, because none of my teachers were axe murderers, they were teaching me the best way they thought, and they taught me that Aboriginal people just moved aside when Europeans arrived, and went into the missions. As meekly as that. And I was ashamed of my people. It was terrible to think that the people had walked away from the land. They didn't talk to us about the massacres. They didn't even talk to us about the smallpox. They didn't talk to us about the defiance of our people, how successful their resistance was to European invasion. We didn't learn any of that, so now that we are having this conversation in Australia, it is a magnificent time, because within the story of Aboriginal resistance, within the story of Aboriginal achievement, there is the story of the country to which we all belong. All of us here in this room. None of us are going away. Black people aren't going to go away, non-Aboriginal people aren't going to go away. We have to get on with each other.
What we do over the next decade will decide the future of the country. It's as simple as that. Michael Westaway's work, which will be revealed in the next few years will be astounding, as I said before, and will help us to make up our mind what we're going to do about this wonderful place.
Up around Lake Mungo there's a grass that grows in sand. It requires only the available moisture that falls in that region, which is very little. It grows in pure sand—a rich sand but a pure sand. And that grain has never been examined by science. And a Japanese artist who doesn't speak English came to Mildura…put all those facts together and think about it: Japanese artist, doesn't speak English, goes to Mildura. Sounds like a joke about an Irishman.
Anyway, he turns up in Mildura and discovers the Aboriginal people there and starts talking to the old women there, in Japanese. But they have a relationship, and he's curious about their life now and the lives of their grandmothers and grandmothers before, and they start talking to him about baking and bread. And he got fascinated by that. And so with their children and grandchildren they harvested these grains here from Panicum decompositumand we turned it into flour. And you know it astounds me that Norman Tindale, the American archaeologist/anthropologist, was laughed out of the country for suggesting that Aboriginal people made the first ground-edged axe in the world. That was in the '70s. Last year in Western Australia we found the first ground-edged axe in the world, 48,000…49,000 years old.
Tindale was right, the American. We laughed him out of the country. And Yutaka, the Japanese guy, he's right too, because this stuff makes bread. Never before examined by Australians. There's a huge gap in our scholarship in this country and we can redress it. I've spoken to some people today who are going to redress it.
Cornflakes boxes and silver foil, and in the heart of that little oven on the sands of Lake Mungo is the bread. We were underneath an awning having a bit of a yarn up with the scientists involved in Lake Mungo—because it was talking about Lady Mungo at the same time as this bread was baking and we could all smell it. It was beautiful. It'll be the heart of your kitchen one of these days and it won't take very long.
There's the bread that came out of those ovens. It wasn't 100% panicum, and it did have a sourdough starter as the ferment, but we know that Aboriginal people used ferments to rise the bread, we just don't know what that ferment was or what they were. A hundred cooking shows…no one knows what that ferment was. We think it's honey. Maybe it was banksia flower, but in that country there I think it has to be honey. Anyway, the future of Australian diet, Australian cuisine, was taught to us by a man from Japan.
Bill Gammage was sent this photograph by an art dealer in Sydney, and it was by von Guerard, 1841. In the back left-hand corner of this very, very early painting there's a field of murnong: microseris lanceolata. We know next to nothing about microseris lanceolata. When Mitchell, the same man—he travelled a bit—when he was in the western district of Victoria, what he called Australia Felix, what he said was, 'Just waiting for the hand of civilised man to turn the soil.' He noticed that from where he stood at Gariwerd, or the Grampians, to the South Australian border it was yellow with murnong flowers. It wasn't just murnong flowers. There was a base of moss below them and there were orchids and bulbi lilies in amongst them. But they were all tubers, they were all harvested by our people. George Augustus Robinson had to prevent settlers from shooting those women when they went out to harvest the fields that they'd been harvesting for—who knows? Twelve thousand years, fifteen thousand years, thirty thousand years—we don't know. We do have a hundred cooking shows in this country but we don't know the answer to that question yet. Perhaps we might in the future. These are important questions.
The devotion of labour to those volcanic soils of the western district of Victoria are the best soil in the country that was virtually treeless (read Bill Gammage) virtually treeless and was devoted to these tubers. And we don't know anything about them. In my country, Yuin country, at the moment, and in Gunditjmara country my son is growing murnong.
In Yuin country my wife and I are growing murnong. Some of the other brothers and sisters are growing murnong, or microseris lanceolata. So there is some progress being made.
But Jonathan Jones made some enormous discoveries in this museum amongst a pile of stone that was virtually unlabelled, apart from a couple. This one is called 'Stone artefact, Bogan River pick.' Now most of those other stones were unlabelled, but Jonathan wanted to know what they were, because he'd read Dark Emuand he wanted to find out about this idea of agriculture. And this photograph is one of the most important photographs in Australia. Not the surfers at Bondi, which turns up every year on the cover of a glossy magazine somewhere. This humble little photograph, because that stone is that big and is too heavy to use above the waist for any period of time. The handle for it was attached at right-angles and you can see the waisting on that stone that Aboriginal people had chipped in to take the binding which bound the handle to that stone. The only possible way to use that tool was between the legs in a pendulum action.
The surface of the stone's point had not been used on stone, it had not been used on wood, it had only been used on soil. What for? An early form of croquet? The people were turning the soil over for a purpose.
And down in the western district our people, without any archaeological support at all, are examining gilgis, what the old people call gilgis, which are gardens that have been built into the stone of the volcanic area of western Victoria. And the soil has been enhanced. Each of the soils is different and some of them have been enhanced with calcium—possibly from bone or burnt bone, we don't know. But something very strange happened there and is possibly associated with these.
Such is the state of our science—we don't know—220 years later we don't know what was going on there. And this man here was wondering about how he was going to go forward with some of his research and I said to him, 'Michael, don't be a bloody dill. You know, people are going to be falling over you one of these days because Australia is changing its mind.' We've had The Gods of Wheat Street, we've had Redfern Now, we've had First Australians, we've had Stan Grant on mainstream TV. Things are changing. This couldn't have happened 10 years ago. It wouldn't have happened. First Footprints. These things couldn't have happened a decade ago; they are happening now because Australia seems to want to change its mind. But 30 years ago Australia wanted to change its mind about the Republic, and then quickly forgot all about it. So we cannot afford to forget it now.
After I'd seen the photographs that Jonathan had sent me I started wandering around regional museums. I found this stone in Daylesford and it was called 'Unusual Stone'. That is indeed unusual, because once again it's got marks where bindings had been applied at right-angles to the stone and there are about six of those stones in that museum, and I've seen others since.
When we start to look, when we start to examine our country, when we start to go back through the collections of our museums we're going to come up with some astounding bits of information.
That photograph, beautifully taken, you'll have to admit, from my mobile phone. It's so explicit, isn't it—you don't know what it is? Well it's part of a grinding stone, some of which is down here in the plastic bags at the front, which I saw with Laura and I saw with Alison last year. It's part of a grinding dish which is between 32,000 and 36,000 years old. And Judith Field and Richard Fullagar have examined that stone to look at the starch which is impressed into the interstices in that stone, and they find that the starch there is incredibly old and is probably the oldest form of seed grinding in the world. So the woman who did that work and who thought it up, who decided to get a handful of seed and grind it into a powder, and then thought what she's going to do with the white powder. She thinks, 'I think I'll put some water with that. I think I'll heat it up.' And she made bread before anyone else on Earth.
The chemical processes of the intellectual might of that woman is incredible. She should be famous in Australia.
Here's my sister. Really emotional day for us to be in the presence of that stone, that really, really old stone. And I took that photograph because I wanted to remember it. I wanted to know exactly what it was like, because I knew that I was in the presence of something so important to the world. Not just Australia. If this is the oldest bread-making equipment in the world, then it's world history. It's the start of people changing the whole of their science, the whole of their nutrition, the whole of the pattern of their life. And we will find out very soon that those people were establishing themselves in a social system which was way, way in advance of anywhere else on Earth. And we ought to be proud of that. When we go overseas, instead of talking about Donald Bradman—whom no one else knows anything about, apart from the Indians—we ought to go over there and say, 'Look, that's my passport, I'm Australian, it's got the Koori flag on it,' (because it has now…it's supposed to be something to do with computers, but I call it the Koori flag on the front of the passport). And I say, 'Yeah, there's the Koori flag, and I come from the country that invented bread.'
(Hello, Bud, I didn't see you there, hey. One of the hardest working people in Australia right there. I owe you a lot, Sis.)
There's some more stones that we saw that day, you know. Just acres and acres of stone and we're thinking, you know, this treasure trove of Australian life. All Australians need to see it. And we need to see it because of this little plant here. You know nothing that Aboriginal people ever did came without a story. It didn't come with a monograph, a scientific monograph on protein or nutrition. It came with a story. On the right you've got the grandmother. In the middle you've got the mother. On the left you've got the child. And poor old Mum in the middle there, she's been attacked by a swamp rat in our garden at Gypsy Point. You can see the tooth mark there, we can tell exactly what kind of animal made those marks because of that pattern. That swamp rat had to walk past strawberries to attack that plant.
Why is the rat so keen? Because the nutrition level of that murnong (microseris lanceolata) is so high, and its kindness to your gut, its benefit to your whole digestive system, is so important that the rat knew it had to eat it. And we will all be eating this in three or four years. You'll be able to buy it at the greengrocer, or Coles if you have to go to Coles, and we'll be eating these things. And I hope when they come on the market they're not called yam, they're called murnong.
If they're sold in western Victoria they're called murnong. If they're sold on the south coast of New South Wales they're called narramah, the local name. Because if they come out of south coast they're narramah. If they come off the volcanic plains of western Victoria they're murnong. And we will be celebrating this and will be benefitting from it, because the sugar in it is not a sugar at all, it's fructans, and is very, very good for you.
There's an old Sheila and me. That's Beth Gott. There was virtually no research done on murnong. There was one paper by a guy called Frankel, and all the rest of them were done by that lady. Without Beth Gott, 97 years old, still working at Monash University, still…she's got a garden of murnong there and other grasses and things which she still works at. She's a fabulous Australian. She's not very famous but she's a fabulous Australian.
This was my son's murnong garden a number of years ago, 2013 I think, 2015. But now that murnong is so big that all the leaves have come together like that. He had to rotary hoe out some couch grass to plant that and of course the couch grass just kept on coming up through the straw. But now that the leaves of the murnong are crossing each other like that there are no more weeds. And this is how the old people…because you can see the moss on the right-hand side next to the pumpkin, the moss on the right-hand side is critical to how this plant grows.
This is how the old people had it. And we're trying to reinvent the wheel of Aboriginal agriculture now. We'll all be eating these things; I just hope that we'll remember where they came from.
This are the Brewarrina fish traps. In the future in Australia people will buy their mothers and their wives and their children tickets, plane tickets to fly to Brewarrina to see these magnificent structures. Some scientists say they're the oldest human construction on earth, and yet no one knows they're there. When the Europeans first arrived they broke through the fish traps so they could take their paddle steamers upstream, and further upstream again they dammed it. And the fish in the hand of the young lad on your left-hand side there no longer exists because of that dam. Because that fish bred up in the upper reaches of that river, the Darling River, and once the dam was in place it could not reach its breeding grounds, disappeared within a year. Very sad. Beautiful fish. And indicative of how careless we are with our Earth. How we know so much and yet we know so little—and sometimes care less.
This image here I've taken around to universities around the world and in Australia, and I ask people to guess what continent it comes from. No one guesses Australia, but that's actually Cape York.
The whole of that stream was dammed with stakes and mud and foliage. The drums are made of paperbark. It's on a bench made of jungle cane, and the whole of the river's water has to go through those two tubes and all the fish come through it as well. It's a fishing machine. It's a commercial fishing machine. And there's another wonderful example of that fishing machine which I describe in Dark Emu, which is only $35 and it's got real photos in it, and you can buy it outside, apparently.
But there's another example there of a bloke on the Murray River who, his people had dammed the river at that point, allowed water to go through it, and he'd inserted a noose into one of the apertures and attached a really bendy green stick to it with a rope on it which was attached to the noose, and the noose was attached to the bottom of the river with a peg. And when a fish ran through the noose it got caught around the gills, released the peg, the fish was flung out of the river and landed beside the man on the bank that his people had constructed. And he—and I say in the book—'insouciantly places the fish in the basket.' Because Kirby, the first European to witness this, is watching from the bank. And that man is insouciant. Some of my Aboriginal brothers say to me, 'Why do you use a word like "insouciant"?' And I say, 'Because I bloody can.'
And that's what that man was. Our people were language experts. We can use any word we like. We learned English within weeks of meeting the first European. We learned to sing Christian hymns with a Scottish accent because we wanted to be exact. So we're the language experts.
I'll say that man was insouciant. And Kirby, in witnessing that, said, 'When I was sailing out to Australia I'd learned that Aboriginal people were amongst the laziest people on Earth. And watching a man fishing in that way proved to me that what I'd heard was right.' What he'd witnessed was engineering, commercial engineering, and yet he'd called it laziness. That's how we twist our minds to suit our prejudice.
Aboriginal people were supposed to live under a piece of bark propped up by a stick. This is taken from part of the country where some of my family live. A magnificent structure, accommodates 40 people. This is an Australian house. This is an Australian grave. We heard on the radio when we were driving around someone talking about gardens and how the Europeans had invented gardening and how the English country garden was supposed to be the pinnacle of excellence in this regard. And these people, the first people on Earth to ritually bury the dead, had clipped all the land around, painted the trees, and made absolutely serene repose for their dead.
This is a house that was revealed at Tyrendarra in Victoria in 2009 after the fires. There are hundreds of these house sites. Once again, the Victorian Archaeological Survey when they visited that site in the 80s, couldn't decide whether they were of human construction or not.
So Heather Builth, archaeologist, decided that the only way to prove that the Lake Condah fishing complex and these houses were of human provenance, weighed every stone, and mathematically proved that they could not have been built by any other way than by human hand. That was a wonderful bit of science, wonderful bit of archaeology, and now she can't get a job.
This happens a lot. I have another great friend of mine, I'm not going to mention her name, another archaeologist, she's a wonderful woman. And because of her insistence on the respect and the protection of a site up on the Murray River she's now offside with her university colleagues, can't get a job. Some of the work she's done—and she did Brewarrina early days, very early days—is magnificent. And such is our inability to embrace the true history of the country that we ostracise someone like that.
No one would talk to Bill Gammage when he first started talking about what he was talking about. His fellow university professors stopped talking to him. Michael came along with a copy of Rupert Gerritsen's book on the first agriculture in Australia that had to be published in London. And Rupert couldn't get a job. Mind you, he did blow up a bomb at the American embassy in Perth during the Vietnam War. Maybe that had something to do with their reluctance to hire the man, but geeze, have a sense of humour.
Anyway, poor old Rupert couldn't get a job either because he was at the absolute forefront of Australian archaeology; it just wasn't recognised that's where he was.
Another one of the cemeteries. These are places of repose. This is talking about civilisation. Some other housing…low doorways, different style altogether to suit the country in which it was made. And these houses are made in a warmer—a mild climate but a warmer climate with a very big doorway, an aperture, to allow the breeze. But have a look at the span of that one your right-hand side there. That is a serious structure. The ones in the western districts of Victoria made out of stone with bowsers, rafters and ribs covered in sods of soil. One of the Europeans who first negotiated purchase of the land so-called, he went into one of those houses and there were 50 Aboriginal people there waiting to meet him. It's a big structure. It's a town hall. It's a bigger building than anything in the town that I live in at the moment.
There you go, there's Dark Emu. There's so much fascinating stuff going to come up because we're going to need it. Not just because you have to be kind to Aboriginal people. You'll embrace this information because we're in a drying continent and we're going to need to find a way of feeding people and conserving water in the country and looking after the country.
I hope that's where it leads. I hope we say we are here for Mother Earth. We will do nothing that will damage the earth. And this is not touchy-feely left-wing greenie sentiment. If we adopt that, and say we will not harm the earth. It's the absolute intellectual rigour. You can't get tougher than that intellectually. You can't get harder-nosed than to say, 'I will not damage the earth.' It's the top of the economy. It's the top of science. And we have to do it, and that's what our old people did. They worked out a system where everybody got fed. Everybody got a house. Everybody took part in the culture. And when they got old everybody was looked after by the young. Those old people. Where else on earth did a people decide that you Yuin people, you're all down on the south coast, you look after that country down there. You Gunditjmara, you go over there and you look after that west coast country over there. You Yolngu, you're up there. You look after that and all the crocodiles, all that salt water, you look after that, and you Wiradjuri, you know, you're in that country there, the other side of those mountains, and you Gadigal people you're looking after this country here. And you stay there, and you stay there, and you stay there for 80,000 years.
Who cares how long a people have been in place? Because our people say we've always been here anyway, but we know now that the excavation of a midden at Warrnambool is between 60,000 to 80,000 years of age, 10,000 years before Out of Africa. How did they get here? Just lost, I suppose. I spoke to the archaeologist involved in that excavation and I said, 'Isn't it great that it's 60,000 years,' and they said, 'Bruce, 60,000 years be buggered, it's 80,000 years or I'm a chook.' And I believe they're not a chook. So 80,000 years is serious. Singh, when he excavated at Lake George near Canberra he was convinced that humans were burning there 120,000 years ago.
Once again, people were astounded. Richard Fullagar, who did work on those stones, did an examination of some archaeological material, came up with an age of 120,000 years, that's being reinvestigated—but people laughed at him and laughed at him maliciously. They laughed at Singh, they laughed at Tindale; because what is this reticence in this country about Aboriginal achievement? Why do we resist it with such enormous vigour? Why do we refuse to give oxygen to people with a different opinion? Because we still want to lie about how we came by this land. Because Terra Nulliuswas all about, well they didn't do anything with the land.
So therefore, according to the doctrine of discovery, which Pope somebody or other, the third or fifth or something said in 1534 or thereabouts, the doctrine of discovery said, 'If a European ventures to sea and finds a land he is compelled to take that land in order to bring the light to those people.' That's the doctrine of discovery. It is the very basis of colonial law. The absolute basis of it.
All of these things we have to examine and we have to open our hearts a bit, and I think we can do it, together. I think we can do it together because it is so exciting, and it means so much to us, and I look forward to those days and I look forward to listening to Michael speak, because in the very near future this man's going to be famous. More famous than Sir Donald Bradman, and I'm serious. Thank you very much.
Michael Westaway: Thanks Bruce. I'm not sure about everything you said about me, but it's very kind, and you did mention quite a few colleagues that have fallen to the wayside that have worked closely with your ideas, but I've actually been very inspired by Bruce's book. It's an important contribution I think to the intellectual debate in Australia, and he's raised many important questions that a number of archaeologists have raised in the past. He mentioned a chap called Gerritsen, who sadly passed away in 2013. Gerritsen wrote a very important book on Aboriginal agriculture, and discussed in enormous detail the ethnographic record and discussed it with a focus on two or three different regions.
Now Gerritsen was…the book was reviewed by other archaeologists who dismissed it and suggested no, that this is intensification of resource exploitation. It's not necessarily food production. And it was unfortunate, because Gerritsen I think had struck on a very important question in Australian archaeology that wasn't really explored in any significant way. He'd documented landscapes where there was evidence for food production. There was evidence for sedentism, people living in village sites. And it's recorded in exhaustive detail, and if you really wanted to sink your teeth into Gerritsen's volume I'd recommend having a look at it.
Unfortunately, archaeology in Australia I don't think has developed the methodology to investigate sites like this. The sites that I've had the great fortune of looking at in some parts of the country are more reminiscent of sites that you would find in south-west Asia or the Levant, pre-pottery Neolithic sites. The sorts of landscapes that I think that are still yet to be explored in this country do exist. And they will provide, if they're investigated through a new methodology, I think a different interpretation of the Aboriginal past. And they'll provide important insights into things like food production, understanding of sedentism.
In Australian archaeology, and I was chatting to a colleague earlier about the methodology in Australian archaeology is often called telephone booth archaeology—excavating small, one square metre pits, and provide some information from a site.
I think to investigate the types of sites that have been discussed in Bruce's book and also by Gerritsen beforehand, requires an approach more similar to what we see in Near Eastern archaeology, where these structures are excavated in whole. I also think that techniques that have been developed by archaeobotanists who go through carefully through the sediments using flotation tanks and recovering seeds—that sort of technique is also required to investigate some of these sites that Bruce has talked about.
Now some archaeologists have documented these sites. For example, in the corner country of Queensland, South Australia, New South Wales and Northern Territory, Ian Davidson from the University of New England (retired) documented a site with 17 villages. Unfortunately not published. Stone structures representing what looks like a more sedentary approach to living on the landscape.
Further sites, west of Birdsville have been documented and published in 1965 in the old journal Mankind. Similar sorts of village sites have been recorded. So there is an existing archaeological record, but I don't think it's been explored in the thorough sort of way that needs to be undertaken to make sense of the meaning of these sites.
A new methodology is required to understand what these sites mean. And I think that's why Bruce's essay is such a powerful and important piece. It probably needed to be an Aboriginal person that actually spoke up and said, 'No, we're not concerned about using terms like villages.' We're quite comfortable in using a term like a village site. We don't think we're abusing the English language by explaining these as village sites. And in fact many explorers like Mitchell and Sturt used these terms very happily in the 19th century.
I think that we have lots of methods in Australia that can help us understand the sites. Grinding stones such as these are being investigated by colleagues, and they're revealing information, the sort of questions that Bruce is asking: what sort of grasses are being processed? Are these Mitchell grasses? Well, when people were grinding grain into these stones years ago they were grinding into the matrix of that stone the residues of that plant material and animal material that can now be detected through high level microscopy. The residues can be lifted and the species can actually be identified.
So these archaeological methods now exist, because heritage is now firmly owned by Aboriginal people in this country, I think they're now asking questions that archaeologists probably couldn't ask a couple of decades ago. I've had the great privilege of being able to investigate the ancestors of many Aboriginal Australians. And it's actually the stories that are told by these ancient people that can help us understand things like, well, how mobile were these populations? We can look at things like isotopes, which are the chemical signatures in bones and teeth, that can tell us about mobility and movement.
These sort of approaches to understanding the first agriculturalists in the Near East have been operating for decades. But now I think archaeologists and communities are starting to work together to ask these sort of questions.
Our museum collections are really quite important too, and the techniques provide new opportunities to ask new questions. That fossil at the end of the table, we were able to date that fossil. It's held at the Australian Museum, collected from near Lake Mungo in the early 1980s, and it revealed an OSL date and a uranium series date of around 31,000 to 32,000 years ago. We published that in January or February this year and it's the latest surviving example of megafauna in the country.
Zygomaturus was thought to have become extinct soon after the arrival of the First Australians. For many years the dominant hypothesis has been the blitzkrieg hypothesis, or the rapid overkill, that the megafauna quickly succumbed to these new hunter-gatherers that arrived in the continent.
That specimen at the end of the table demonstrates that there was at least 20,000 years of coexistence. It doesn't date the extinction event, it just dates the age of that specimen. We know that there's 20,000 years of coexistence represented by that fossil at the end of the table. The grinding stones have other secrets to tell. Museums are full of collections that have been carefully cared for and now is the time to start reinvestigating these. We were also involved in the publication last year, it was the first genomic study of the First Australians. Many Aboriginal people…there were nine Aboriginal co-authors on this paper. It was published in Nature. Science magazine declared it as one of the most important top 10 scientific discoveries of last year. I was the first co-author on this paper, and it demonstrated significant things about the population structure of the First Australians. So the genomes of those Aboriginal people that live and survive today also tell a very ancient story.
The molecular biologists and bioinformatics specialists that look at the genome can look at changes in history. The DNA provides a story of populations diversifying. It also can tell us when we see much greater diversity in populations. So by using something called the molecular clock we can estimate that at certain times populations changed. And an important thing to come out of that paper that we published last year showed that populations in Cape York significantly increased around 10,000 years ago. That's probably 6,000 or 7,000 years earlier than the archaeological record would tell us. So the molecular clock is telling us stuff about Aboriginal populations. Aboriginal populations changed with time, and many Aboriginal people are now inspired to start asking these questions of science, and using these questions to tell a new history.
And I think that's what's so exciting about Bruce Pascoe's book. It is a very bold and challenging thesis that questions what archaeologists have been calling a continent of hunter-gatherers now for some 60 years.
Bruce asks some very important questions. He points out an enormous amount of historical data suggesting, no, the story's a different one. And I think now we're on the cusp of launching in to investigating this new story. I think that's probably all I need to bang on about at the moment, but I'm very excited by Bruce's research. It's actually inspired me a great deal. I was reading his book before I went out into the field earlier this year, and it was changing many of my perceptions.
I read the original reviews of Gerritsen's book which was quite damning of the idea. But to actually hear it written in the popular way that Bruce has done, has actually changed many of my perceptions. And I think there are many other Australian archaeologists that are starting looking at these questions that Bruce is asking; well, can we reinvestigate these landscapes and look at them through a different lens? Many of our perceptions I think are biased by lots of the classic anthropological studies, from Arnhem Land and the western deserts. Those anthropological studies aren't necessarily the right ones to understand some of these other landscapes. So it's an exciting time, I think, for our discipline, and all the more exciting, I think, because of Bruce's important contribution. Thank you very much.