Australia is a land of superlatives, most of them having to do with death. The dry continent is home to the world’s deadliest snake, the world’s two deadliest spiders, and the flightless but ferocious cassowary. Its surrounding oceans are filled with man-eating sharks, toxic jellyfish and even (sorry, Nemo) a killer octopus. If the saltwater crocodiles don’t get you, the venomous cone snails will. It’s no wonder that the largest cemetery in the southern hemisphere is in Australia, or that an even bigger one is being planned in (where else?) western Sydney. To be constructed in Wallacia—current living population: 1700; proposed dead population: 800,000—the proposed cemetery would be just a ten-minute drive from the long-anticipated airport at Badgerys Creek. That raises the prospect of a new export industry for Sydney’s far west: permanent migration.
As with international students at Australia’s universities, bodies coming in are recorded in the national accounts as services going out, generating “export” revenue. The prospects are real. Hong Kong and Singapore have already run out of burial space, and other Asian cities are bound to follow. With daily non-stops to most major source countries, Western Sydney Airport could become a regional funerary hub. After all, someone has to use the new airport. Located fifty kilometres from Sydney’s CBD and lacking a dedicated express rail link, it certainly won’t be used by the quick. That leaves only one alternative. “Aerotropolis to Necropolis in ten minutes or less” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it would fit nicely on a billboard. Maybe it sounds better in Chinese.
Death may be good for business, but it’s not the only thing worth living for. Lucky country that it is, Australia is also home to another, more affirmational superlative. No, not the world’s longest fence, or the world’s largest roadside novelty ram. Inspiring as they are, such cultural artefacts are as nothing compared to the totality of human experience itself. Australia is, as Quadrant readers will be well aware, home to the oldest continuously living culture on the planet. Admittedly, it must share this distinction with several other countries, but now that New Zealand has redefined itself as Aotearoa, Australia can at least claim exclusive rights to hosting the oldest continuously living culture in the southern hemisphere. That culture is, of course, Anglo-Saxon.
Genetic research apparently shows that Aboriginal Australians are the direct descendants of some of the first modern humans to have left the family home in Africa, but that says nothing about culture. Whatever culture those first Australians may have had (and they must have had one), their twenty-first-century offspring no longer share it. The 80 per cent of Aboriginal Australians who reside in urban areas live decidedly non-Aboriginal lives, speaking English, ordering Thai takeaway from Uber Eats, and demanding Voices to Parliament. Many of them care deeply about their Aboriginal heritages, and no one need doubt their sincerity, no matter how late in life they may discover their Aboriginal ancestries. But caring deeply about a dead culture and practising a living one are two very different things.
Those few Aboriginal Australians who reside in remote areas experience even fewer aspects of genuine Aboriginal culture than their city cousins. The brutally shattered remnants of Aboriginal nations, peoples or tribes (take your pick) that persist in remote Australia are more thoroughly modernised than any well-assimilated urbanites. Arguments about who is responsible for the social problems of remote communities can be reserved for feature articles, the letters pages, or even a story at the back of the book; this column is about culture (says The Philistine), and outback culture is not so much backward as fast-forwarded. Life in remote Aboriginal communities may be nasty, brutish and short, but when the top three causes of death are heart disease, diabetes and lung cancer, you can hardly call it “traditional”.
In any case, where are the bakeries baking bread to recipes handed down from the times of the world’s first grindstones? Where are the quaint stone-house villages turned tacky tourist traps? Where are the Aboriginal fish farms that are still yielding eels? No one questions the antiquity of Australia’s Aboriginal cultures, but many societies lay claim to possessing the world’s oldest culture, and only propinquity particularly recommends Aboriginal culture to modern Australians. Propinquity—and politics. Let’s face it: if the standards of evidence on which Australian Aboriginal cultures were declared the world’s oldest were applied globally, many African countries would claim to possess cultures dating back more than 2 million years. Actual human beings may only have been around for 10 per cent of that time, but culture was there before we were. For proof, look no further than the Neanderthal cave art of southern Spain.
The red stains on the stalagmites of the Cueva de Ardales aren’t much to look at, but archaeologists assure us that they’re art. Nonetheless, the Neanderthals who left them are long gone, and any Andalusian claims to be their cultural descendants fall apart on the fact that Picasso never painted with red ochre. Neanderthal genes live on in nearly all non-African Australians (whether Eurasian or Aboriginal), but Neanderthal culture is as dead as a doornail. Not that Neanderthals had doornails, or doors, or nails of any kind except on their fingers and toes. But a culture has to be living in order to qualify as the world’s oldest continuously living culture, and Neanderthal culture isn’t even hanging on by its fingernails. Neanderthal genes live on in our very cells; Neanderthal art, sadly, has perished. It seems that having the world’s oldest living culture is less a matter of antecedence than a matter of survival.
Thus although Australia’s oldest cultures were certainly Aboriginal, Australia’s only living culture is Anglo-Saxon. The term “Anglo-Saxon” is used here neither to provoke Antifa vigilantes nor to please white supremacists, but to identify those who live under characteristically English institutions without necessarily living in England. Unfortunately, the less-encumbered term “English-speaking” is inadmissible for this purpose because it annoys the Irish, who also speak English—though strangely it does not seem to bother the Scots, who don’t. (The Welsh may safely be passed over in silence, as usual.) Anglo-Saxon culture has, of course, absorbed many foreign influences over the millennia, but the language and laws of England have bent, not broken. These days, English is everywhere, and there are very few cultures anywhere that have not been thoroughly overlaid by Anglo-Saxon institutions. In Australia, there are none.
Yet Anglo-Saxon culture hasn’t won the title of world’s oldest merely by forfeit. Anglo-Saxon culture is old—very old—if not by the standards of geology or genetics, then at least by the criteria of linguistics. Elements of the English language go right back to the very beginning. Some linguists believe that the oldest word in the world may be dik, which is apparently the proto-humanic word for “one” … or for a pointing finger. Most prominent in African languages, dik is said to have cognates in all major language groups, from the Turkish tek (“only”) to the Greenlandic tik (“index finger”). The clearest English cognates for dik are index and digit, both from the Latin for “finger”, but as every Tom and Harry knows, a finger isn’t the only thing that points. The Oxford English Dictionary is polite enough to trace the slang term for the male anatomy to a diminutive for Richard that first appeared in the sixteenth century, but Chaucer’s Wife of Bath much earlier warned readers about evil women:
That somme han slayn hir housbondes in hir bed
And lete hir lecchour dighte hire al the nyght
A lecchour was a Middle English lecher and the operative verb in these verses is dighte. If the age of a culture can hinge on the origins of a single word, it seems that English goes right back to the beginning.
The palaeolithic English vocabulary may not have been quite fully formed, but other Anglo-Saxon institutions are more verifiably ancient. The oldest may be the English common law. Other cultures also had common laws before civilisation came along and codified them: Hammurabi and Moses, Solon and Lycurgus, Justinian and Napoleon, the Meiji emperor and Mao Zedong—all the great lawgivers reset their countries’ cultural calendars to Year Zero. Among the world’s many archaic customary laws, only those of the Anglo-Saxons have survived intact to the present day. On the evidentiary standards of contemporary Australian historiography, that’s enough to make Anglo-Saxon culture at least 50,000 years old.
And counting. The mortal remains of Aotearoa may someday end up in the Western Sydney Necropolis, but the oldest living culture in the southern hemisphere continues to adapt and evolve: not just to live, but to thrive. Quadrant readers, rest easy. Unless you live in New Zealand. In which case, perhaps just rest in peace.