Beyond racial classification and exclusion.

Beyond racial classification and exclusion.
Painting, Kintore School: E94168 Image: Australian Museum
© Australian Museum

The discipline of anthropology grew out of curiosity about ourselves, greatly inspired by encountering others, people different from the neighbours in our village, town or country. People who sang different songs, cooked different food and danced at different rituals.

In the West, anthropology was shaped by overarching philosophy of progress. The path to progress was through cultivating the land and mind; through industry and commerce, which distinguishes humans from nature and indeed encourages us to subjugate the natural world - "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” God instructed the first couple (Genesis 1:28). And the progress was merged with evolution whereby different humans would represent various stages of evolutionary ascendance of humankind.

For most of its history anthropological studies were implicitly or not enmeshed in the politics of power, dominance and exclusion. Indigenous groups in our region were defined through racial classification, often reduced to skin colour. They were considered inferior to the Anglo-Saxon type who, presumably, reached the pinnacle of human evolutionary progress.

A sad legacy of Western anthropology is that for centuries it was intertwined with colonialism and racism. It was in the west Pacific and Australia where racial studies were supposed to encounter the best empirical evidence and produce the finest classification. It did not work out this way, and this is why the history of anthropology is so instructive.

With simple technology, lack of cities or the agriculture of Europeans, Aboriginal people were considered less cultivated and less human. Some mobility in the land use was misconstrued as a nomadic form of life, which signified a lower position on the scale of progress. The Nomadic label led to the false but convenient notion of “tera nullius” – according to bizarre colonial logic, people who don’t cultivate the land, don’t own or occupy it.

During extensive fieldworks (1926-1963), anthropologists led by Joseph B. Birdsell and Norman B. Tindale, two giants in early Aboriginal studies, collected a large body of data on cultural and physical characteristics of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people. The intention was to assemble anthropometric data, showing where, in the big scheme of the human family tree, Aboriginal people were placed.

Diligent workers collected various measurements, botanical samples, stories, songs, genealogies, personal recollections, linguistic data and artefacts - well documented in writings and photographs. They compiled a rich repository of records, far surpassing initial research objectives.

They also collected hair samples of over 5,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from various communities. These samples were analysed recently in genetic research (with consent of the communities involved), to show similarities and differences between regional groups.

This hugely important study allowed researchers to chart Australian genetic and geographic history before European settlement. There is a strong indication that Australia was settled in a single and speedy episode of population, spreading along the east and west coast. It reached South Australia by 49-45 thousand years ago. Since then the population formed stable and distinct regional groupings which preserved its specific characteristics for nearly 50 thousand years.

Such ancient and well-pinpointed ancestry of Aboriginal People is pretty much unique in the world (but it could be expected in New Guinea). Long-standing geographical variation between regional groups persisted through climatic and bio-ecological upheavals of the glacial period, its ending with sea-level rising and changes in plant and animal makeup of the country. To account for the patterned mobility within regions, researches coined a term “nomadic sedentism” which highlights a strong and extremely durable bond of people with their land. Connection with the land is in Aboriginal blood - written in the genes, more than metaphorically.

And genealogical data collected decades ago, before another long period of assimilation policies and painful disruption to social continuity, is to benefit not just a general knowledge, but importantly real people whose family histories were so badly mangled by the politics of classification, assimilation and exclusion.

Additional information:

The study reported above was conducted as a part of the Australian Heritage Project (AHP) - a collaboration between the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), the South Australian Museum (SAM), and Aboriginal Australian families and communities, which aims to reconstruct the genetic history of Aboriginal Australia.

Numerous fieldworks that assembled this data were mounted by the Board for Anthropological Research (BAR).

Scientists are still unsure if there is an alternative to racial classification; perhaps not. But there is not a valid reason for using it at all. Delineation of racial types is highly fluid and subjective. Some of the most ardent proponents of such classification pronounced it useless a long time ago.