51. The Aborigines
by George Weber
Table of Contents
1. Theories and Controversies: a general overview
2. The Australian Negrito Pygmies by Gillin
For the Tasmanians - see the separate chapter The Tasmanian Aborigines
WORK IN PROGRESS
1. Theories and Controversies: a general overview
The oldest dated archaeological human finds in Australia are all younger than 50,000 years. There have been plenty of claims of older finds but they are all controversial and none has stood up to closer scientific scrutiny so far.
The earliest human arrivals are likely to have been few in numbers. To build up a general population covering most of the continent and numerous enough to seriously affect the Australian environment (even with the help of deliberately-laid fires), would have taken many thousands of years from the earliest arrivals. A very small early population would also explain why early remains are so few that none have been found yet.
Ecological evidence has now been presented (Johnson Ch. N., 2005; Miller G.H.et al. 2005) that indicates a major and unusual ecological change in Australia around 50,000 years ago. It is argued convincingly that this may well have been caused by human activities. If so, this would help date the human arrival without need for dateable human remains.
We would like to make an additional and more speculative point here: Toba volcano on Sumatra erupted around 73,000 years ago. It devastated huge areas of SEAsia and the Indian subcontinent (ash layers in central India of up to 6 m) and also at least adversely affected the world's climate for some time afterwards. It is not impossible that this eruption encouraged early humans then living on islands of the Indonesian archipelago and in Papua-Newguinea to the east of the eruption to move out of harm's way - to Australia.
Populations living to the north and northwest of the volcano were exterminated by the eruption and would mostly not have had time to escape. Those to the east and southeast of Toba were not nearly so badly affected. Were human refugees driven to crossing the sea or using landbridges then existing to Australia in the aftermath of Toba? It is and intriguing speculation but unproven as yet. However, the limited available archaeological evidence and the discoveries of Miller G.H. 2005 2005 discussed here would fit such a scenario.
For a detailed discussion of the Toba eruption of 73,000 years ago refer to the article Toba Volcano on this web site. For more details on the people that could have been "in transit" to Australia during prehistoric times see our Chapter 25 "Prehistory and Theories".
The earliest populating of Australia and one of its possible causes.
red dot: Toba volcano
blue dots: location of measured ash layers from Toba volcano eruption
red line: estimated area of Toba ashfall and probable extent of its "death zone"
brown area: hypothetical movement away from the Toba area after the eruption by early humans then living to the east of the volcano. The arrows also mark the direction of migration into Australia quite irrespective of whether those population movements into Australia were connected with Toba.
Coastlines shown are those of today.
Dark green: land areas from the time of the Toba eruption 73,000 until around 10,000 years ago (with some fluctuations, warmer periods have higher sea levels and less land area)
Light green: land areas today
red dot: Toba volcano
For a more detailed map of Wallacia with Wallace's biodiversity line (and other biodiversity lines) see Chapter 25 "Prehistory and Theories"
A new attempt to date the arrival of Homo sapiens in Australia has become possible through the analysis of ancient egg shells left by the two ostrich-like birds Dromaius novahollandiae (the still living emu) and the extinct Genyornis newtoni.
Two types of plants eaten by the birds have left traces in their egg shells:
- plants with photosynthetic pathway C3 (most shrubs, trees and non-grass herbs)
- plants with photosynthetic pathway C4 (tropical and dry-adapted grasses)
Miller et al, 2005, have found a large change in emu diet between 50,000 and 45,000 years ago. Before that time, the emus had a varied diet with a strong contribution from C4 plants. After 45,000 years ago they lived mostly off C3 plants. Genyornis at that time also lived on a mixture of C4 and C3 plants but its diet was much less varied than that of the emu, suggesting that it was a more specialized feeder. While the emu adapted successfully and survived until today, Genyornis did not and died out 45,000 years ago.
These results point to a sudden change in vegetation. Possibly mixed woodlands and grasslands grass were converted into monotonous shrubland, or nutritious grasses were replaced by poor-quality species, forcing the emus to increase their feeding on non-grass species. Wombat teeth tell the same story: today, wombats are mostly grazers but around the time when emus changed their feeding and Genyornis went extinct, the wombats also changed from C4 grass to C3 shrubs.
The cause behind this sudden change in diet was more than a change of climate. The record of eggshells analysed by Miller et al 2005 goes back to 140,000 years. During that time, the climate changed several times, from cool and dry to warm and moist and back again. Despite the climate changes, both emu and Genyornis diets remained unchanged. There must be an additional factor and that was almost certainly the arrival of Homo sapiens.
Human impact is the only factor that can account for this change. ... The fact that the distributions and feeding habits of both species changed so little in response to climate extremes, but so much when people arrived, tells us that the impact of human arrival far exceeded the effects of any of the climate changes of the past 140,000 years. Human impact probably also included the extinction of up to 50 species of giant marsupials. The date of extinction of Australia's giant marsupials remains controversial, but recent evidence points to between 50,000 and 45,000 years ago.
How did humans manage such an impact? Deliberately-lit fires (a widespread practice among aborigines in Australia during historical times) would be an obvious possibility. Fires can cause many environmental changes and do not need a large human population. The evidence of such fires should be there in the form of charcoal layers. Oddly enough, such evidence is not there. No charcoal records were found in the region where the eggshells studied have been found. Indeed, sediment cores elsewhere in Australia between 70,000 and 40,000 years ago are fewer than before and after that time.
It is possible that the humans hunted the large marsupial herbivores to extinction. African herbivores have a huge impact on vegetation and it is likely that the Australian herbivores had a similar influence. When the large herbivores suddenly vanished, the plant mix changed dramatically.
As Miller et al 2005 notes
Neither overhunting nor human-introduced diseases, the two most widely cited alternative agents for a human-caused extinction event in Australia, would result in the dramatic changes at the base of the food web documented by our data sets. The reduction of plant diversity apparent in our data, however it came about, would have led to the extinction of specialized herbivores and indirectly to the extinction of their large non-human predators. Dietary specialization, rather than feeding strategy (browsing versus grazing) may be the critical extinction predictor. Animals such as Dromaius, with wide dietary tolerances, survived the extinction event, whereas more specialized feeders, such as Genyornis, became extinct.
Johnson Ch. N., 2005. "The Remaking of Australia's Ecology", Science 309:255-251, 8 July 2005
Miller G.H., Fogel M.L., Magee J.W., Gagan M.K., Clarke S.J. and Johnson B.J. 2005. ""Ecosystem Collapse in Pleistocene Australia and a Human Role in Megafaunal Extinction." Science 309:287-290
Mulvaney J. and Kamminga J. 1999. Prehistory of Australia. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London
2. The Australian Pygmies Negrito (Negrito?)
J.B. Birdsell (mentioned in the text of the Windshuttle-Gillin article - see link below) with an Australian pygmy (Negrito?).
Joseph B. Birdsell, height 186 cms (6 ft 1 ) with a twenty-four-year-old male of the Kongkandji tribe, height ca. 140 cm (4 ft 6 in). The photograph was taken at Mona Mona Mission, near Kuranda, North Queensland, in 1938.
Aboriginal and other surviving "remnant populations" tend to be badly treated and despised by the majority populations, virtually everywhere. They are often pushed into a precarious fringe existence and pressurised to "come into the mainstream of society" (an expression widely used in India towards the Andamanese Negrito, for example). The "mainstream of society" is not just in India regarded (by the members of that self-appointed "mainstream", at least) as the pinnacle of human development.
In practice, this attitude always produces the same result for the ancient surviving minority populations: loss of original culture without adequate acquisition of a new culture, coupled with an existence on the fringes of the meainstream society in grinding poverty with alcoholism, drugs, prostitution and other social evils. Efforts to "acculturize" such populations are pracically never adequate, sufficiently funded or even intelligently carried out - and so hardly ever successful. Bureaucrats tend to make the decisions and minority tribes are expected to be properly grateful if their children get a little primary schooling. Of course, they should also be keen and ready to accept all the values of the dominating mainstream society. As in the Andamans, so in Australia.
The societies who treat their most ancient human groups in this way are invariably proud of their own ancient past but such pride rarely goes back further than the earliest mainstream written records, temples or traditions. Rarely if ever are the miraculously surviving representatives of a remoter past treated with any kind of respect or allowed any dignity. Instead, it is utomatically assumed, to be "civilized" and "joint the mainstream."
It is no coincidence that many of the tribal names given to such ancient living groups by their new masters mean "slave" while the ancient peoples' own names often mean "human beings". The widespread present-day attitude towards aboriginal populations all over the world rarely comes from ill-will or conscious racism. Much much more common is a lack of respect and a cultural arrogancewhich comes from a widespread ignorance about a country's prehistory. Such crass ignorance in most countries is by no means limited to the less educated classes.
Australia and Tasmania is the area we are concerned with here and it must be said that the "Australians" (i.e. migrants from Europe and elsewhere that have arrived only in the past 200 years) have made serious efforts to make amends for the atrocities committed against the aboriginal population in the past. The Australian aborigines have recently received many rights long overdue to them, along with legal possession of their ancestral lands. The trend is indeed good news, but unfortunately there have been some dismaying side-effects in Australia with overshooting "political correctness".
Scientific investigations (especially archaeology and DNA analyses) in Australia have been hampered by the arrogant attitude of past archaeologists. The pendulum has now swung to the other extreme and the Australian tribes on whose land archaeological finds are made can now insist that the finds be immediately reburied without scientific investigation. This even if the remains are thought to be 50,000 year old and most unlikely to be connected with the present-day local tribe. Some tribes do not insist, but others do. In many cases it is not known what happens to the finds once they are handed back - they simply vanish and are presumably reburied. A Tasmanian group of activists collected Tasmanian human remains to burn them (even though the genuine (and extinct) Tasmanians did not practice the burning of their dead. Also, self-appointed aboriginal political activists insist (without producing evidence) that all Australian aborigines are one people and not (perhaps) several. The result is that the Australian pygmies have vanished from literature and the Tasmanians are just "ordinary" aborigines. Tje activists try to block all and any research which they regard as hostile. Given the aborigines' treatment in the past, such (over)reactions are understandable. Not all aboriginal groups agree with this self-damaging attitude, however, and some tribes have begun to cooperate with scientists and to take an informed interested in their own past.
As soon as the first aboriginal scientists graduate, they will realise what an appalling disservice their patronizing "politically correct" white advisors have done them. The present aborigines' children and grandchildren are unlikely to be pleased.
In the meantime, one would have thought that the academic establishment of Australia would make every effort to explain patiently and respectfully the purpose of scientific research and try to motivate the aborigines to participate in the great enterprise and in the interpretation of any results. The aborigines should also be told that their wonderful "dreamtime myths" do not clash with scientific results but that the two complement each other. In fact, there is no other place in the world where they complement each other more spectacularly!
One would have thought so, but one would often have thought wrongly. Some scientists do try to make these points but under the dead hand of guilt-ridden "political correctness", too many do not. The attitude is widespread that results which do not fit accepted politically correct ideas must be false and cannot be published. Older results from times when political correctness was unheard of are airbrushed out of existence, denied or ignored. How very reminiscent of the dear old Soviet Union!
Treating aboriginal populations correctly and with respect is not a simple or an easy matter. Conflicting aims have to be somehow reconciled. Difficult or not, it must be done and our hope is that the information we present on this Web-site will go some way to change popular attitudes towards aboriginal populations in those countries that are lucky enough to still have such citizens. If it annoys the politically correct, well, we will have to learn to live with their wrath.
An article by two Australians has made a splendid case for the "missing" Australian pygmies (Negritos?) and the inanities of "political correctness". The existence of Australian pygmies was general knowledge until the 1960s. Then the knowledge suddenly vanished from the scientific radar, providing a fascinating study in how even the most well-meaning science can turn into obscurantist twaddle once there is a hidden political agenda:
Keith Windschuttle and Tim Gillin
(from our Reprints section)
One counter-argument against Windschuttle's and Gillin's case is the claim that the short-stature of the Barrineans could have developed in situ, i.e. the Barrineans are "normal" Australian aborigines that adapted to their long-term jungle environment by developing short stature. It is the same argument that claims the various Negrito groups are not really related because each group could have developed separately under similar environmental pressure. This argument is a non-starter since Negritos have a great deal more in common that short stature!
T.J. Gillin has this to say on the subject:
"Environment presumably plays some role in pygmyism, but it would be a mistake to assume all examples evolved in situ in their current homeland. Kalahari Bushmen are often classed as pygmoid but live as far from the jungle as could be imagined. These people may have had a 100,000 year tenure in Africa and have inhabited diverse homelands from one end of the continent to the other. ...
Besides, it is not clear that Atherton rainforest peoples (the Australian pygmies - George Weber) actually developed their short stature in North Queensland rainforests. For one thing, those rainforests have not always been there. Djirbal stories from the Atherton say it was open country when people arrived. Earth scientists tell a similar story. During the last glaciation rainfall levels fell 50%, eucalypt forest expanded and rainforest retreated to a few "refuge areas". Only in the last 10,000 years have rainforests re-expanded. If pygmyism developed locally, it was presumably developed in this period. Is this enough time? Was the local population isolated enough? Does anyone really know?
3. The Australian Aborigines
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Last change 1 January 2008