The news that BHP will “destroy at least 40 Aboriginal sites, up to 15,000 years old” is a modern-day tragedy.
Stories will be lost with the destruction of these sites. Each site, whether it contains ancient artwork or remains for the archaeologist to piece together, could hold dozens of stories.
Let’s talk about the artwork first
An Aboriginal elder once proudly said to me: “Our painting carries the spirituality of who we are.”
“How so?” you might ask.
Every aspect of Aboriginal culture was born in The Dreaming (discussed in more detail below), and this is reflected in the art, itself an expression of The Dreaming. But further, the art is an extension of how the Aboriginal people relate to their position in the world. As change swept across their culture with the arrival of Europeans, so too did the art, yet it still retained the thread of spirituality.
Art could be rock art, ground art, body paintings, bark paintings, weapon decorating, and the sculptures of Northern Australia. Works of art, whether they be painted on canvas or crafted in bronze, signed by a master or be of lazy scribbles, are all of one purpose: They capture a moment or a meaning and freeze it in time. Aboriginal art is different. Aboriginal art is holistic, as is “time” to the Aboriginal people.
To fully appreciate and interpret Aboriginal art one must have an understanding of the hand that creates it. This hand would belong to a person who lives by the law of The Dreaming; who knows that The Dreaming is as it was lived and that how it is still lived; and who knows that The Dreaming is an erasable map of the past, the present, and the future. The Dreaming is in the art, and art is an expression of ceremonial and religious life.
My old university lecturer said that the various art forms of Aboriginal society were attributed to The Dreaming. Ancestral Beings had painted the original design and the artist who painted on bark or drew in the sand was copying the designs inherited from the ancestors.
It is not hard to imagine that the Ancestral Beings watch over the artist at work, ensuring that the events of The Dreaming are perpetuated in today’s culture. That perhaps art itself is a religious activity. Or perhaps, too, that art is a visual language. In essence, that the permanence of Aboriginal life is ensured by the invoking of powerful forces through the symbolism of art. It reflects a concern with the questions of origin and purpose, as interpreted in The Dreaming.
Amid the changes that Aboriginal culture has contended with, the art has incorporated these changes while still retaining its spiritual message. Aboriginal art is as much alive today as it was 60,000 years ago. As in that ancient past, the art – significantly – is not easily separable from everyday life.
And what can archaeology tell us?
There are two views of knowledge into the past and origins of the First Australians: The Dreaming interpretation which is based on mythical knowledge; and the scientific interpretation which is dependent on archaeological evidence. The importance of The Dreaming interpretation is fundamental in Aboriginal cultures yet remains inconclusive to archaeologists.
Some Aboriginal elders have said they already know what happened in the past. Their knowledge is founded on traditional and mythical beliefs passed down through the generations. Beliefs that relate to their origins – their creation – and the living past. This mythology gave them an assurance that they had originated from their land in a period of creative activity (The Dreaming). These beliefs encompass wisdom, and they encompass law. And neither is challenged.
What is The Dreaming? The Dreaming is the creative acts of the ancestral spirit beings; creating species, features, laws and the bonding of relationships between humans and nature. The Dreaming is as it was lived, and how it is still lived. It is an erasable map of the past, present, and future.
All the laws rituals customs, and the purpose of life originated in The Dreaming, and it is important to re-iterate that this belief is not challenged.
Archaeology challenges this belief. What is archaeology? It is the study of ancient cultures through their material remains. Mainly through excavation of ancient sites archaeologists try to create a model of the lifestyles, religious beliefs, diets or any morsel of information about the culture being studies.
In 1969, erosion exposed the skeletal remains of a young Aboriginal lady at Lake Mungo, NSW. She is known as the Mungo Lady and her remains have been dated about 20,000 years before the present time. Excavation of the site offers archaeologists and interpretation of many of the facets of Mungo Lady’s society as well as facts about Mungo Lady herself. It is relevant to mention these (scientific) findings before discussing the Aboriginal (or The Dreaming) interpretation of Mungo Lady.
Science tells us the Mungo Lady was cremated and that her bones were placed in a bark cylinder for burial. She was gracile, that is, not of robust build. We are told that in her time Lake Mungo was water filled therefore she belonged to a lacustrine society. We are told that her people caught fish from the lake, and how they caught and cooked the fish. (The heavy grounding found on ancient teeth tell us that this is the result of constant chewing on reeds from which fishing nets were made, and the consistent size of fish ear bones found in ancient hearths tell us that the Lake Mungo people were conservationists in that they practised gillnet fishing.) Her people had a social order, were religious, and had implements to grind seeds. The list could go on.
Aboriginal interpretation of Mungo Lady was more concise (or perhaps more complex): She had been buried according to law, and that her appearance on the land surface was not a result of erosion, but rather she had emerged at a critical time in the history of her people to tell her story.
The origins of the first Australians are also interpreted differently by archaeologists and The Dreaming beliefs. Science tells us that during one of the ice age periods – most likely the one 60,000 years ago – sea levels were much lower than present, thus allowing migration through island hopping into Australia from the Asia region.
What is the Aboriginal interpretation? Again this is concise. During The Dreaming, spirit beings emerged from the water or the land and took (for our purpose) human form. These beings were the ancestors of all living beings, travelling over the earth performing the same activities that are still performed by the Aboriginal people today. These creatures started human society and Aboriginal people believe in this.
Of the two views of knowledge, only The Dreaming interpretation is solid. Archaeology with its scientific and analytical approach has not provided enough evidence to support its theories. Their description of, say, the Mungo Lady, provides an informative narration of her lifestyle, yet her origins and most of her past remain a secret. Perhaps in the future, other remnants that now lay buried in the land may emerge and science will provide an interpretation – while the First Australians will provide an answer.
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