In recent years, many false claims have been made about the nature of Aboriginal culture and the extent of Aboriginal knowledge of science and other aspects of learning and discovery known in the West. Most of these claims are distorted, and often clearly nonsensical. The aim of this article is to have a closer look at some of these very dubious aspects of Aboriginal culture. It might be useful to begin this discussion by looking at one facet of their worldview, Aboriginal astronomy.
According to Charles Mountford, “the Aboriginal people of Groote Eylandt and Yirrkala in Arnhem Land have an explanation for the waxing and waning of the Moon. They believe that when you have a full Moon, it is because at high tide the sea water runs into the Moon and at low tide the sea water runs out of the Moon. The Moon then has a crescent shape. However, there is no scientific evidence that they have actually seen the sea water rushing or coming out of the Moon …”
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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“Venus is the most conspicuous planet. Stories about Venus, the Morning Star which is known as Barnumbir, are well known and common knowledge to the Aboriginal people. To the Aborigines in north-eastern Arnhem Land, Barnumbir is associated with death … According to the Aboriginal people, Barnumbir is held on a long string held by two old women on the Island of the Dead … Just before dawn Barnumbir is let out of the bag so that the star can wake up the people and give them messages from the dead. At dawn the star is pulled back to the shore and kept in a bag during the day. The process is repeated again next morning. The Aboriginal people in north-eastern Arnhem Land perform morning star ceremonies to ensure that the deceased travels safely to the Land of the Dead,” — Dr Ragbir Bhathal, “Astronomy of the First People of Australia”, online
“In many Aboriginal traditions, the planets are seen as children of the Sun and Moon. They represent ancestor spirits walking across the sky, connecting ceremony and Law to various groups of stars. In Wardaman Aboriginal traditions, Uncle Bill Yidumduma Harvey describes the planets moving across the sky as ancestral beings walking along a road. Just as you or I walk down the street, sometimes we stop and turn back before moving forward again. Sometimes we slow down and chat with other people during our journey. Uncle Yidumduma says the ancestral beings are coming back for another ‘yarn’ with other planets as they travel across the sky … The planets are seen as celestial beings with heads, but no bodies.” (“Indigenous Astronomy and the Solar System”, Indigenous Knowledge Institute, University of Melbourne, online.)
This farrago of superstition, ignorance and balderdash is not “indigenous knowledge”, or knowledge of any kind, and represents the exact opposite of Western knowledge about astronomy as it has developed since ancient times, by empirical observation, the propounding of rational theories to explain these observations, their testing and criticism of these theories in the light of further empirical observation, followed by the propounding of further, improved theories, which are always subject to rejection or amendment in the light of better rational theorising.
It might be worth setting out the main landmarks in the development of Western knowledge of astronomy since ancient times, as given in one timeline of the history of astronomy. In 467 BC, Anaxagoras produced a correct explanation for eclipses, and described the Sun as a large fiery mass. He was also the first to explain that the Moon shines with light reflected from the Sun. In 270 BC, Aristarchus of Samos proposed the theory that the Sun was at the centre of the universe, with the Earth just one planet revolving around it. From Roman times until the Renaissance, and especially during the “Dark Ages”, when original knowledge was often regarded as blasphemy and heresy in a way which parallels the regard for original knowledge in traditional Aboriginal society, there was no progress, at least in Europe, in our knowledge of astronomy, but then great scientists and their discoveries re-emerged. In 1543 Copernicus revived the theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun, rather than the other way round; in 1608 the Dutchman Hans Lippershay invented the refracting telescope; in 1609 Johannes Kepler devised his three laws of planetary motion, showing that the orbits of planets were elliptical; in 1610 Galileo published a work describing what he found using his telescope, including sunspots, craters on the Moon, and four satellites of the planet Jupiter; in 1687 Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica, propounding the theory of gravitation and the laws of motion—and so on, to the latest discoveries made with telescopes in orbit around the Earth.
Some of these discoveries were made at cost to their discoverers: Galileo spent the last ten years of his life under house arrest by the Inquisition for his theories (and for apparently attacking the Pope in one of his books). The cost to some brilliant and brave discoverers should never be forgotten by those who now champion the prep-class drivel of Aboriginal “uncles” as scientific knowledge, although in Australia it increasingly is. But in the West, great scientists and discoverers were also admired and honoured: Newton, for example, was made a knight, given the sinecure position of Master of the Mint so that he could have an income with no duties, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. So, too, was Charles Darwin, who was also one of the most honoured scientists of his day, despite the fact that his theories appeared, to some, to undermine established religion.
Another common trait today in considering Aboriginal “science” and “knowledge” is to greatly exaggerate its originality and novelty. A good case in point is the use by pre-contact Aborigines of the stars at night as a map to “navigate” (on land) when on their nomadic travels. According to Robert S. Fuller (“How Ancient Aboriginal Star Maps Have Shaped Australia’s Highway Networks,” ABC [where else?] Conversation, published April 7, 2016): “Like [travellers] today [Aborigines] turned to the sky to aid their navigation. Except instead of using a GPS network, they used the stars above to help guide their travels … the pattern of stars showed the ‘waypoints’ on the route. These waypoints were usually waterholes or turning places on the landscape. These waypoints were used in a very similar way to navigating with a GPS, where waypoints are also used as stopping or turning points … The pattern of stars (the ‘star map’) was used as a memory aid in teaching the route and waypoints to the destination … Such a route resulted in what is known as a songline. A songline is a story that travels over the landscape which is then imprinted with the song (Aboriginal people will say that the landscape imprints the song.)”
“Songlines” were necessary in Aboriginal society because they had no writing or maps on paper to guide their nomadic wanderings, and because pre-contact Australia had no marked roads or streets, no horses, stables or wheeled vehicles, and no wayside inns to facilitate travel. The implication that there was something unique about their use of the stars in their “navigation” is entirely false. The use of the stars in celestial navigation at sea was virtually ubiquitous among an enormous variety of peoples and cultures. It is worth citing Wikipedia’s Epic List of the many peoples who have “excelled as seafarers”, making use of the stars and, later, of man-made devices like the astrolabe (invented in Hellenistic times) to master sea navigation: “The Austronesians (Islander Southeast Asians, Malagasy, Islander Melanesians, Micronesians, and Polynesians), the Harappans, the Phoenicians, the Iranians, the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the ancient Indians, the Norse, the Chinese, the Venetians, the Genoese, the Hanseatic Germans, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the English, the French, the Dutch, and the Danes.” It should also be noted that in 1787-88, Captain Arthur Phillip successfully led a fleet of eleven vessels on a 24,000-kilometre voyage from Portsmouth, on the south coast of England, to Botany Bay, often in uncharted or virtually uncharted waters, in all weathers.
Another central navigational device is the compass, enabling the identification of magnetic north. The compass is believed to have been known and used in Han Dynasty China between 300 BC and 100 AD, and is also known to have been used in China from c. 1050 AD. Its first use in Europe has been dated to c. 1090 AD, and in the Muslim world to 1232 AD. There is also remarkable evidence that it may have been known to the Olmec people of what is now Mexico as early as 1000 BC. The compass was also used on trade routes in East Africa in medieval times. One of the few places in the Eastern Hemisphere where its use was not in use was Australia: it was completely unknown to the Aborigines, so far as we know.
Most recent commentators have viewed Aboriginal culture as centring around the concept of the “Dream Time”, which was introduced into anthropological discourse by Francis James Gillen (1855–1912), a noted anthropologist, but without formal training, who was master of the Alice Springs Post and Telegraphic Station from 1892 and also Sub-Protector of Aborigines in that area. The term became known to the wider public by his collaboration with the eminent Oxford-trained anthropologist Sir Baldwin Spencer (1860–1929), and first appeared in print, it seems, in an 1896 work by Spencer and William Austin Horn, Report on the Work of the Horn Scientific Expedition to Central Australia. There is no record of the term, or anything like it, being used by anyone before that date. It was apparently unknown to the dozens of explorers, settlers, missionaries and others who knew Aboriginal society well and wrote about it.
A number of important points should be made about the use of this term. First, it derives from a word in the language of the Arandic people of central Australia; many linguists believe that it might more accurately be translated as “eternal created”, “abiding law”, or the like. Second, and more importantly, it is not a description of the workings of the universe, but a code of proper tribal behaviour. The term “Dream times” (in the plural) apparently occurs twice in the Horn Expedition report, most importantly on page 111:
The morality of the black is not that of the white man, but his life, so long as he remains uncontaminated by contact with the latter, is governed by rules of conduct which have been recognised amongst the tribe from what they speak of as the “alchēringa,” which Mr. Gillen has aptly called the “Dream times.” Such rules of conduct are taught by older men to the young ones and are handed down from generation to generation. Any breach of these rules renders the offender liable to severe punishment—either corporal or what is perhaps quite as bad, the feeling that he has earned the opprobrium of, and is ridiculed by his fellows.
That the “Dream time” is not an attempt to explain the meaning of life but attempts to make binding for eternity the rules and regulations of the tribe is echoed in a magisterial 427-page work by Spencer and Gillen, The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899), page 17:
As amongst all savage tribes the Australian native is bound hand and foot by custom. What his fathers did before him he must do … Any infringement of custom, within certain limitations, is visited with sure and often severe punishment.
The early anthropologists of the “Structural-functional” school, like Emile Durkheim, indeed saw the function of tribal myths not as an explanation of the origins of anything, but an attempt to enforce tribal solidarity and conformity.
The other early use of the term “dream times” in the Horn Expedition work occurs on page 50:
The blacks have a rather curious myth to account for the origins of the pillar [a natural formation in central Australia]. They say in what they call the Alcheringa (or as Mr. Gillen appropriately renders it the “dream times”), a certain noted warrior journeyed to the east and killing with his big stone knife all the men, he seized the women and brought them back with him to his own country. Camping for the night on this spot he and the women were transformed into stone, and it is his body which now forms the pillar, whilst the women were fashioned into the fantastic peaks grouped together to form what is now known as Castle Hill, a mile away to the north.
This “explanation” is typical of both the nonsensical, non-rational basis of all Aboriginal myths, and of its extreme brutality.
The term “dream time” is apparently not used at all in the later major works by Spencer and Gillen, which are accounts of tribal marriage and relationship taboos, totems, ceremonies and aspects of tribal life such as the “medicine men”. What is absolutely clear is that the term did not denote any Aboriginal worldview of harmony with nature, preservation of the environment, communion with the animal and plant world, and the like, such as one might expect to hear about at some New Age love-in, or from the vegetarian wing of the Greens Party (and the Aborigines were emphatically not vegetarians). Any such interpretation dates from the recent past, probably no earlier than the 1960s, and has been advanced by the woke brigade in order to make the Aborigines seem not merely less utterly brutal and superstitious than they actually were, but also far more moral than today’s white Australians.
Probably the most alarming aspect of the distortion of the nature of Aboriginal culture is that it is widely accepted in the curricula of schools and even universities. Bruce Pascoe, whose apparently mendacious claims about the Aborigines have been repeatedly exposed in Quadrant and elsewhere, received a Chair at Melbourne University; misleading claims about Aboriginal “science” are readily available on numerous websites. One such, “Aboriginal Knowledge for the Science Curriculum” (online) claims that “If we understand ‘science’ to mean a systematic approach to acquiring knowledge, then ‘Aboriginal science’ is the science of their natural environment. After all, they used scientific methods of data collection, such as observation and experimentation, for thousands of years.”
This site makes a number of claims which seem highly dubious. It states that “most modern aircraft’s wings mirror the shape of a boomerang”. But aircraft wings were, for many decades, straight rather than v-shaped, and exist to create a partial vacuum over the (horizontal) wings which will cause the aeroplane to rise. The dynamics of boomerangs—however ingenious they may be—and aircraft wings are nothing alike. The site also claims that “Aboriginal people knew that the tides are linked to phases of the moon, while Italian scientist Galileo Galilei was still proclaiming, incorrectly, that the moon had nothing to do with the tides.” The statement about Aborigines here is an apparent reference to those in Arnhem Land, who believed that “when the tides are high, water fills the moon as it rises. As the water runs out of the moon, the tides fall, leaving the moon empty for three days. Then the tide rises once more, refilling the moon.” (“Australian Indigenous Astronomy,” online.) Obviously, water does not fill or leave the moon—this is nonsense. That the moon was linked to the phases of the tide was well known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, such as Pytheas of Massalia and Seneca, and to medieval writers like the Venerable Bede and Dante. It was first proposed in an exact way by Kepler in 1608, and was given technical grounding as an aspect of gravity by Newton in 1687. Galileo’s untrue belief was that tides were caused by the movement of the Earth round the Sun, apparently an overly enthusiastic inference from the Copernican theory, which he had been championing. Ironically, it flew in the face of the beliefs of most other Western scientists since ancient Greece that the moon and the tides were linked. The examples noted here are typical of recent efforts to make wildly exaggerated claims of Aboriginal genius while denigrating Western scientists.
As well, there is, of course, zero evidence that the Aborigines used “observation and experimentation”—particularly the latter—in anything they did; the most striking aspect of the pre-contact Aboriginal presence here is that they did not modify or change anything in their environment which might ameliorate the fact that they were nomadic hunter-gatherers who were forced to murder 35 per cent of their children. Nor does it take into account the fact that the Aboriginal population of Australia was perhaps 350,000 in 1788, whereas today Australia is the home of 26 million people, most of whom enjoy a standard of living almost infinitely higher than did the pre-contact Aborigines. These inconvenient facts must be asserted and reasserted every time absurd and misleading claims about Aboriginal society and culture are made, as they are with increasing frequency.
William D. Rubinstein held chairs of History at Deakin University and at the University of Wales. He has written several articles for Quadrant recently on the nature of pre-contact Aboriginal society and is now completing a book on the subject