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Indigenous peoples of the lands now known as Australia, like human beings everywhere else in the world, display notable diversity in their physical characteristics. Indigenous people from the Australian deserts have been described as tall and slender (gracile), while those from a riverine environment along the Murray River several thousands of years ago were seen as stockier and more robust (Pardoe, 1995). The North Queensland rainforests are no exception, and the Aboriginal people of the rainforests have been referred to by some as “pygmies”: that is, people of short stature less than 150cm for males and 140cm for females (see https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/pygmy).

A more accurate term would be ‘pygmy morphotypes’ – meaning a variation in type within the human population. There is no evidence to suggest a discrete or separate genetic lineage has ever existed in Australia (Westaway & Hiscock, 2005; Scheinfeldt & Tishkoff, 2013). While the physical differences observed in different environments may sound reasonable in the reporting, these variations have been used in different contexts to support singular and partisan assertions about Aboriginal peoples, Aboriginality itself, and exactly who are the First Nations peoples of Australia.

Wide-ranging academic debate that had sprung from these observations led to speculation about the origins of Aboriginal peoples. One example is the ‘trihybrid’ theory of colonisation (e.g. Birdsell, 1967). A more recent case is the opinion piece of historians Windschuttle and Gillen (2002) who argued – without any empirical evidence – that a race of ‘pygmy people’ from the Far North Queensland rainforests (as evidenced in the writings and photographs of Norman Tindale in the 1930s), were the original inhabitants of the land that is now called Australia. They asserted that rainforest pygmies were here for several millennia, only to have been dispossessed of their land and replaced by Aboriginal people. How these assertions tie in with the oldest (and gracile) human remains from Lake Mungo in New South Wales, which are more than 40,000 years old, is unclear (see Bowler et al., 2003).

We argue that the Windschuttle and Gillen argument is fundamentally flawed. The primary issues are: (1) the selective use of information to bolster their assertions of a ‘pygmy’ founding population; and (2) the complete disregard of research findings that directly contradict their thesis.

In what can be construed as a campaign to deny Aboriginal peoples’ status as the original inhabitants of Australia, the ‘pygmy narrative’ and trihybrid theory have been ideologically and politically useful for some people (Grounds & Ross, 2010). In response, there has been substantial pushback from a range of people working in this area of research (e.g., Westaway & Hiscock, 2005; Davidson, 2015; Coleman, 2019), with the aims of those advocating the pygmy narrative and trihybrid theory being described by Griffiths and Russell (2018: 38):

…in arguing for multiple waves of migration by different ‘racial groups’, which then usurped the previous groups, these theories reduce the magnitude of the dispossession wrought by Europeans. We all become ‘invaders’; there are no ‘first peoples’, only second- and third-wave Australians.

The “pygmy” claim continues to resurface in debates, as McGregor (2016: 13) observes:

In mid-twentieth century Australia pygmy tales exerted an irresistible appeal, and it was easy to find a photograph of an exceptionally short individual from the rainforest to embellish a story in the popular press.

Certainly, institutions like the Australian Museum are not immune to challenges by the public when it comes to any discussion of “pygmies”. To address these queries, we defer to peer-reviewed scientific studies where the likely reasons for ‘pygmy morphotypes’ to emerge, typically in rainforest settings, are identified (see Perry & Dominy, 2009). Adaptive responses to environment, food availability, access to protein or minerals and nutrients, as well as high adult mortality and gene flow, together or in combination potentially contribute to morphological change (that is, changes to the physical appearance of an individual) (Perry & Dominy, 2009, Tommasetta-Ponzetta et al., 2013). All of these factors can have an impact on people across any environment and over time, as seen in the temporal study by Pardoe on the riverine environment along the Murray River (Pardoe, 1995).

Aboriginal people in Australia are all genetically linked (Westaway & Hiscock, 2005), and the physical differences observed in some rainforest dwellers may reflect long term adaptive responses. Aboriginal people in Far North Queensland have utilised rainforest resources since they expanded and re-established following the stabilisation and improvement of climates following the last glacial period (c. 125,000-~12,700 years ago) (Cosgrove et al., 2007; Field et al., 2016). It is only in the last few thousand years that people have permanently settled in the rainforests, and it is highly likely that the factors mentioned above have driven adaptations to this environment (see Perry & Dominy, 2009), and the corresponding changes in their physical appearance. A ‘pygmy morphotype’ may have emerged, and eventually receded, but these observations have not fundamentally changed what we know of First Nations peoples. Diversity is always present.

Australia isn’t alone in the practice of generating myths about colonising peoples. For example, some argue that the Moriori people were in Aotearoa (New Zealand) before Māori people (Mills, 2018). Within this particular narrative, the Moriori were wiped out and their land stolen by Māori people. There is also a similarly discredited story concerning a European population in the American continent before the arrival of people now referred to as Native Americans (Saini, 2019).

To conclude: whenever you can, seek First Nations voices and perspectives to learn more about First Nations cultures, histories, and peoples. Myths and propaganda are powerful tools in distorting the truth; they are politically loaded weapons but can be disarmed by questioning any inherent agendas relating to their use. Before you take on board a particular argument as solid fact, consider the evidence.

This article provides references to a number of well-researched papers, including academic peer-reviewed research, which supports the authors’ refutation of the “pygmy” narrative. It is important to critically consider whether it is acceptable to denigrate First Nations by adopting an essentially reductionist view that there are no “first peoples” – only second- and third-wave Australians. Stories like the “pygmy” myth have been used as a way to justify the ongoing invasions of First Nations lands and lack of acknowledgement and recognition of First Nations peoples by stating that the British were simply taking land which First Nations peoples had stolen from others in the first place.

The authors thank Dr Denise Donlon and Dr Colin Pardoe for discussions and advice for this article.


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