The Uluru Statement is clearly passionately felt. Should it be the basis for constitutional change and for co-sovereignty, as fervently claimed?
Parsing it calmly, the Statement has five elements. The first and critical one is the claim that native tribes possessed Australia “from the Creation”, “from ‘time immemorial’, and according to science more than 60,000 years ago”.
The second claim is that the basis for sovereignty is the link with nature, “the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors”. “This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty.”
This essay appears in the current Quadrant.
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The third claim is that this sovereignty from the land has never been extinguished “and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown”. The fourth and fifth claims are the expression of powerlessness and the call for a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
We all have compassion for the sufferers of seemingly endemic domestic violence. The Statement, however, claims to be endorsed by science. It’s therefore worth examining the scientific basis which underpins these claims for co-sovereignty, and doubtless treaty and reparation. Arguably the advances of modern science far outshine any Statement myths.
To say the ancestors were here since “Creation”, or “from the first sunrise”, is off the scale, to be polite. The James Webb Space Telescope, launched in December 2021, is now showing images almost from the start of our universe, the Big Bang at 13.8 billion years ago. The sun itself formed around 4.6 billion years ago. Our planet Earth pluckily arrived around 4.54 billion years ago.
According to Geoscience Australia, the Pilbara landmass existed over 500 million years ago. Our ancient continent Australia was first part of Gondwana, which started separating around 200 million years ago. Australia itself isolated from around 10 to 55 million years ago. Not surprisingly, Australia’s ancient rocks have some of the earliest examples of the start of multi-cellular life, such as eukaryote biomarkers from Mount Isa about 2 billion years ago. Rocks from Jack Hills in Western Australia have the first evidence of the earth’s biosphere forming around 4.1 billion years ago.
We should surely all acknowledge how vastly more ancient this land is compared to any more recent human arrivals. The oldest rocks are around 70,000 to 80,000 times older, and the continent around 200 to 1100 times older.
In fact, our modern species Homo sapiens is relatively recent. Our first ancient human ancestors only separated from apes about 5 to 7 million years ago. Arguably the first great-grandmother of us all, the hominin Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis, discovered in Ethiopia, lived around 3.2 million years ago. Still earlier African hominins lived around 3.4 million years ago. Consensus now is that several waves of ancient humans left Africa from 1 to 2 million years ago. Neanderthals departed stage left towards Europe; Denisovans, Homo erectus and Homo floriensis and perhaps others stage right through Asia. Homo erectus reached Java around 1.5 million years ago and Flores around 1 million years ago. The oldest Homo sapiens fossil dates from around 300,000 years ago. South-East Asia was occupied by these anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens, around 50,000 to 70,000 years ago.
Australia, until quite recently, around 20,000 years ago, was joined with New Guinea and Tasmania, forming a super-continent called Sahul. Above this was another super-continent, Sunda, with much of present Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo, Indonesia and the southern Philippines joined into a great land-mass with South-East Asia. These were separated by the southern Indonesian islands of Sulawesi, Flores and Timor, called Wallacea. The sea level was then as much as 120 metres lower than today.
The key date for ourselves is when anatomically modern humans, including Aboriginal Australians, left Africa. After much debate, consensus is that there was a single main out-of-Africa departure around 65,000 to 70,000 years ago. (There were smaller excursions around 220,000 years ago.) These more modern humans migrated along the southern Asian coast and inland through India and Sunda. Some scientists say they exterminated the ancient hominins they encountered in Sunda. Others say they colonised and displaced them. There was certainly regular inter-breeding with the Denisovans.
Before we get to the much-debated arrival time into Australia, or rather Sahul, it’s worth jumping across to see who current Indonesian and Malay researchers regard as their first ancestors. This is also a complex and controversial issue. There have been three recent major Asian genealogical reviews in 2021 and 2022. The first Sunda people are considered to be the ancestors of the still surviving Malay and Philippine Negritos, renamed the Orang Asli. The Negrito is the most direct descendant of the original hominin inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula. As B.P. Hoh et al say, “both mtDNA molecular clocking and inference of divergence times using autosomal DNA support the notion the ancestors of Peninsula Malaysia Negrito may be the earliest inhabitant of [SE Asia] at least 50,000 years ago”.
We can surmise, but not yet completely prove without more genealogical data, that these earlier hominin and Negrito inhabitants were comprehensively displaced by the more modern anatomically advanced humans migrating south. Would recognising this earlier colonisation help current Australian Aborigines move past their surely self-harming victimisation belief? Current “victims” were also likely much earlier colonisers and even aggressors with greater spear-throwing and tool-making skills.
The claim for a 65,000-year arrival date into Australia, much-repeated by, for example, Noel Pearson, the Australian Curriculum and the Prime Minister, is still scientifically controversial. This needs a deep dive into the vast current research into palaeoanthropology and palaeogenetics. There is almost a battle between the 65,000-year claimants and those of the 50,000-year alternative. The 65,000-year claim was made in a 2017 paper about Madjedbebe in Arnhem Land. It was then comprehensively refuted in a 2018 review, which review preferred 50,000 years, due to such things as “anomalous mismatches” between genetic timelines and archaeological chronologies. Counter-arguments were further politely discounted in a follow-up paper in 2020, again due to current genomic research, which reconfirmed 50,000 years. Some researchers say archaic humans may actually have reached Sahul. All acknowledge the great seafaring skills of the first arrivals in crossing from either Flores or Timor to Sahul.
Further extensive research in 2021 (about the role of termites in displacing archaeological finds) also concluded that “the early [65,000-year] dates for human presence at Madjedbebe and Nauwalabila must be rejected”.
Clarkson et al fired back in a mid-2022 review, repeating their 65,000-year claim. This claimed global significance for in particular two Madjedbebe artefacts, arguably dated between 68,000 and 50,000 years ago. While their review had massive research on grindstones, it curtly rejected the termite displacement argument and concluded that there is “currently no sustainable evidence upon which to dismiss the Madjedbebe chronology and its associated artefactual sequence”. Moreover, it arguably did not fully address the earlier genomic arguments and counter-evidence.
While Australian recent research has seemingly focused on archaeology, Asian research has built on many recent genomic advances to establish common ancestry and origins. As the renowned palaeoarchaeologist Paul Pettitt says in his wide-ranging new book, Homo Sapiens Rediscovered, “We are indeed at the frontiers of palaeogenetics … It’s hard to keep up with the stunning advances of palaeogenetics, accounts of which read like a sci-fi novel.” On Madjedbebe, Pettitt is also sceptical: “dates for the sediments in which the archaeology accumulated were very imprecise, and while they could have been as old as 65,000 years ago they could also have been much younger … We’re on safer ground around 55,000 years ago.”
Recent Asian genomic researchers also queried the 65,000-year claim. As they say, their calculated divergence at 50,000 years between Negritos and Eurasia would then be after the 65,000-year claim between Australian Aborigines and Eurasia, instead of before. They wisely say that comprehensive investigations are needed before any conclusion is made.
However, a 2021 PhD thesis astonishingly said, “from genome-wide GWAS genotyping this study revealed that 11% of [Aboriginal] Australian ancestry came from Southern India, with divergence times estimated about [36,000 years ago]”. This tantalising significant early Southern Indian input would then continue well after the arrival dates into Sahul. It also reports, “Archaeological and genetic data broadly converge regarding the dates of the first settlement of Sahul (50,000 to 55,000 years ago).” Another recent 2022 genomic survey clears things up somewhat:
Present-day Australasians and Asians show that they likely derived from a single dispersal out of Africa, rapidly differentiating into three main lineages … Rapid diversification of an ancestral Asian population led to at least three Asian lineages, associated with Australasians and Negritos, South Asians and Andamanese Islanders, and East and Southeast Asians … Later genetic studies also established that separation from African populations likely occurred 65,000–45,000 years ago.
In summary, the Uluru Statement’s creation claim is wildly inaccurate, to say the least. The claim to have arrived 60,000 to 65,000 years ago is still unproven and much contested. Whatever the arrival date, it is surely immaterial compared to the vast age of this great continent, to which we all now belong. How can you claim to own something in perpetuity, when you have only been here for a minor part of its existence? The scientific basis for the Statement and the Voice is indeed shaky. It surely should not underpin the dizzy panoply of other claims, whether they are separately justified or not.
As the Smithsonian Institute says, we are all “One Species, Living Worldwide”. They sagely continue:
The DNA of all human beings living today is 99.9% alike. We all have roots extending back 300,000 years to the emergence of the first modern humans in Africa, and back more than 6 million years to the evolution of the earliest human species in Africa. This amazing story of adaptation and survival is written in the language of our genes, in every cell of our bodies—as well as in the fossil and behavioral evidence. This ancient heritage is yours.
Surely, we should celebrate and honour our common humanity in this vast ancient land, not seek to divide by race, as the Voice now so immodestly and sadly demands.
Howard Tweedie was born in Penang, Malaysia, with Scottish, Malay and Australian heritage.
Clarkson et al, “Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago”, (2017) Nature 547 (7663): 306–310)
Clarkson, C. et al. Reply to comments on Clarkson et al. (2017) ‘Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago’. Aust. Archaeol. 84, 84–89 (2018).
O’Connell, Allen et al, “When did Homo sapiens first reach Southeast Asia and Sahul?”, (2018) PNAS 115(34): 8842-8490)
Allen, O’Connell et al, “A different paradigm for the colonisation of Sahul”, Archaeology in Oceania, Vol.55 (2020): 182–191)
Clarkson, C., et al. “Human occupation of northern India spans the Toba super-eruption ~74,000 years ago”. Nat. Comm. 11, 961 (2020).
Williams, M. A., Spooner, N. A., McDonnell, K. & O’Connell, J. F. “Identifying disturbance in archaeological sites in tropical northern Australia: Implications for previously proposed 65,000-year continental occupation date”, Geoarchaeology 36(1), 92–108 (2021).
Hayes, E.H., Fullagar, R., Field, J.H., Clarkson et al. “65,000-years of continuous grinding stone use at Madjedbebe, Northern Australia“, Sci Rep 12, 11747 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-15174-x)
BP Hoh, Deng, Xu, “The Peopling & Migration History of the Natives of Peninsular Malaysia & Borneo : A Glimpse on the Studies Over the Past 100 years”, Frontiers in Genetics, (27jan 2022)
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Núñez Castillo, Mélida Inés (20 December 2021). “Ancient genetic landscape of archaeological human remains from Panama, South America and Oceania described through STR genotype frequencies and mitochondrial DNA sequences”. Dissertation. doi:10.53846/goediss-9012. S2CID 247052631).
Pettitt Paul, “Homo Sapiens Rediscovered”, Thames and Hudson (15 November 2022), ISBN 9780500252635
Yang M. “A genetic history of migration, diversification, and admixture in Asia”, Hum Popul Genet Genom. (2022); 2(1):0001. https://doi.org/10.47248/hpgg2202010001).
See also : https://australian.museum/learn/science/human-evolution/the-spread-of-people-to-australia/, Fran Dorey, updated 09/12/21