Having been an aficionado of climate change fiction for many years now, I have gradually come to understand the concept of ‘post truth’ or, rather, to appreciate just how omnipresent it now is.
Recently, I came across the perfect example in reading Bruce Pascoe’s hugely popular book Dark Emu. Dark Emu postulates that Australian Aborigines were not a nomadic hunter-gatherer society, as we had all been led to believe, but a sedentary agricultural people whose achievements included baking the first-ever loaf of bread and inventing government. Pascoe concludes that, on the basis of those achievements, the colonization of Australia was totally unjustified. Dark Emu received the Book of the Year award at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2016.
However, my intention here is not to critique Dark Emu itself – that is the subject of my book, Bitter Harvest, which is now available.
In this essay I will examine just one ludicrous claim that is based on the work of supposedly mainstream serious academics, not faux historians like Pascoe. In Dark Emu, Pascoe floats the idea that colonists downplayed or hid Aboriginal achievements, making them seem more primitive than they really were in order to justify colonization. But not only that:
Perversely, some early colonists exaggerated the size of some features in order to distance the structure from the capability of Aboriginal people and to suggest their origin to be the work of isolated Europeans in the distant past. An engraving of some vertical stones at Mount Elephant, Victoria, published in the Australian Illustrated News in 1877 has certainly been exaggerated to assume Stonehenge proportions. Faced with the evidence of permanent occupation, some were tempted to infer that the work was the result of aliens.
This claim cites the work of professors Ian McNiven and Lynette Russell of Monash University. McNiven is an archaeological anthropologist and Russell a historian. Their assertion first saw the light of day in a paper titled Monumental Colonialism: Megaliths and the Appropriation of Australia’s Aboriginal Past, published in 1998 in The Journal of Material Culture. It then reappeared in a book by the same authors, Appropriated Pasts. In a nutshell, the idea is that colonists were so insecure in their right to be in Australia that they invented structures which could not possibly be the work of Aborigines. Comparing such structures to, for example, Stonehenge, would ascribe a European heritage to them and suggest that a superior, European-based culture had been displaced by Aborigines and that, in colonizing Australia, they were merely reclaiming their own heritage.
I kid you not.
The story of the Mt Elephant stones, located some 183km west of Melbourne and often described as ‘megaliths’, begins as far as McNiven and Russell are concerned with the inclusion in an 1867 work, published in England, on the ancient rock engravings of Britain and selected areas of the world. The author, Sir James Simpson, noted:
Stone circles have been found in almost every country in the old world, from Greenland southward. Nor are ancient circles of this kind wanting even in Australia. My friend, Mr Ormond, informs me that he has seen many, especially in the district near Mt Elephant plains, in Victoria. The circles (Mr Ormond writes me) are from ten to a hundred feet in diameter, and sometimes there is an inner circle. The stones composing these circles, or circular areas, vary in size and shape. Human bones have (he adds) been dug out of mounds near these circles. The aborigines have no tradition regarding them. When asked about them, they invariably deny knowledge of their origin. — Appropriated Pasts, page 104
This was actually a footnote by Simpson which McNiven and Russell describe as ‘telling’. But I’m not quite sure what it told them. They contend the Aboriginal denial of knowledge of the origin of the stones is a ‘two way loss’:
If the Aboriginals were not responsible for the construction of the circles, then they, like the European colonizers, were newcomers, and the legitimacy of their claim to the land was questionable. If, on the other hand, they had chosen to remain secret about the construction, use, and meaning of the stone circles, they were evasive, sly and dishonest. In this context, the use of the term ‘deny’ is important, as it suggests the informants were choosing reticence and silence regarding the site’s meaning. — Appropriated Pasts, page 105
The use of the term ‘deny’ might also be a convenient way to report that the Aborigines said they had no knowledge of the stones. The words of Simpson, a simple recounting of what he had been told, do not justify the inference drawn by McNiven and Russell that this negated in the European mind any Aboriginal claim to the land. And you will note there is no mention of the size of the stones. They are not described as megaliths. McNiven and Russell then go on to cite an 1872 survey of megaliths, The Monuments of Unrecorded Ages, by William and Robert Chambers, which refers to the Mt Elephant stone circles:
Five years later, William and Robert Chambers in their megalith survey of 1872, “The Monuments of Unrecorded Ages” made reference (albeit uncited) to Simpson’s footnote “Even in Australia – in the colony of Victoria – they are to be seen in numbers, sometimes circle within circle, as at Avebury, and without any tradition among the natives”. — Appropriated Pasts, page 105
There is still no suggestion the Mt Elephant stones were megaliths, other than in the claim that The Monuments of Unrecorded Ages was a ‘survey of megaliths’. This description and the arguably disapproving aside that the reference to Simpson was uncited, suggest this was a scholarly scientific work. But in fact The Monuments of Unrecorded Ages was simply one essay (of thirty-one pages) about monuments in general, in just one volume of a series of periodicals titled Chambers’s Miscellany of Instructive and Entertaining Tracts. There were at least twenty volumes of this precursor to Reader’s Digest, containing such essays as “Intelligent Negroes“, “Religious Imposters“, and the one immediately before the ancient monuments piece, “Anecdotes of Shoemakers“. The Chambers brothers were scholarly gentlemen who lived in Scotland but their reference to stone circles in Australia was a very fleeting one in an extensive article and had nothing to do with scientific research on their part or tht of anyone else.
McNiven and Russell then observe that, ‘surprisingly’, James Ferguson failed to mention the Mt Elephant stones in his major survey (this time a real one) Rude Stone Monuments in All Countries published in 1872. I’m not sure why that would be surprising, other than that it, again, failed to provide them with the ‘smoking gun’ of a respectable scientist exaggerating stone monuments in Australia with the aim of establishing that Aborigines were not the first inhabitants of Australia.
We finally get that smoking gun, in the form of an engraving and associated article that appeared in two Australian periodicals and another in New Zealand in 1877 and which can be seen atop this page. The offending engraving, which shows the undeniable exaggeration of what were originally described as merely stones, transforms them into megaliths by dent only of the artist’s imagination.
McNiven and Russell estimate, using the Aboriginal men in the foreground as yardsticks, that the inner-circle stones as depicted would be three- to four-metres high, at least a metre in girth, and that they must weigh at least four or five tonnes. (Appropriated Pasts page 106) But, strangely, this estimation itself appears to be an underestimation. Given that the girth of the standing man would not be much less than a half a metre, the larger standing stones could not be less than five metres. The highest standing stone measures twice as high as the man and, allowing for perspective, would be between five and six metres in height. Why would the authors minimize the extent of the exaggeration? I might have an answer for that.
In The Australian Illustrated News the story that accompanies the engraving is reproduced below in its entirety:
In various regions are found rude stone monuments which are a puzzle to antiquarians. When they were erected, and for what purpose, nobody can tell exactly, history and legend being silent on the subject. All that can be fairly said is that they have been erected by the primitive
Inhabitants of the localities where they are found, and that they constitute the sole memorial they have left to future ages. Probably they were consecrated to religious uses; or, what is more probable still, they were tombs before they were temples, primitive religion having apparently grown out of, or having been at all events closely associated with a certain form of worship addressed to the spirits of deceased ancestors. In that case it may be easily conjectured that the stones referred to are relics of larger structures presenting in their complete form a mound like appearance, and that the stones are merely what remains of the structures when the clay, timber and other materials have disappeared. The stones are often of immense size and they are generally raised to form a circle. Stonehenge presents a familiar example of such structures, and similar stone circles are met with as far north as the Hebrides and as far south as Australia and the islands of the Pacific.
Mr Ormond, in a letter to Sir J Y Simpson, says that he has seen many, especially near Mt Elephant plains in Victoria. They are ‘from ten to one hundred feet in diameter and sometimes there is an inner circle. The stones composing these circles or circular areas vary in size and shape. Human bones have been dug out of mounds near the circles; the Aborigines have no traditions respecting them. When asked about them they invariably deny all knowledge of their origin’. When we note in connection with these stone circles, the circular dances which seem to be common to almost all people as a religious ceremony, we cannot fail to see in these stone circles some mystic connection with primitive religion. The corroborees of Australia, wherein lighted boomerangs are whirled about, are graphically described by Captain Stokes, and Sir John Lubbock notices and illustrates a similar dance as practised by natives of Virginia. — Illustrated Australian News 16 Apr, 1877, page 58
The underlined words were ignored by McNiven and Russell, who describe the entire article’s 369 words as a mere ‘caption’. There is no explicit suggestion that Aborigines could not have constructed these circles or that, if they did not, it would in any way diminish their claim as the native occupants of Australia at the time of colonization. You will note that the author of the story says:
All that can be fairly said is that they have been erected by the primitive Inhabitants of the localities where they are found, and that they constitute the sole memorial they have left to future ages.
There is no suggestion here that the Mt Elephant stones were erected by a superior civilization that pre-dated the Aborigines. Merely that whoever erected them was primitive.
McNiven and Russell then ask:
If the authors and artists responsible for the Mt Elephant image did not perceive the site to be of Aboriginal origin, the immediate question that follows is, Who did build the megaliths of Australia?
They note, correctly, that the image bears no relationship to any Aboriginal stone arrangements and that while stone circles are known in the Mt Elephant region, megaliths were not and have never been a feature of Aboriginal Australia. They observe that, in 1878, district surveyor at Ballarat, Philip Chauncy, addressed the stone arrangements. He stated, apparently referring to the descriptions of circles in Simpson and Chambers & Chambers:
I can safely affirm that these statements are quite incorrect – there are no such circles, and never were. I am convinced that no structures of a monumental character were ever erected by any of the Aborigines of Australia. Nor can the megalithic circles alluded to be referred to any natural appearance in any of the more recent overflows of basalt. — Appropriated Pasts, page 108)
But neither Simpson nor the Chambers brothers referred to “megaliths”, only stone circles. McNiven and Russell also cite a Mr RE Johns and a Rev Peter MacPherson separately discrediting the idea of megaliths in Victoria. So, clearly, the suggested conspiracy to promote the idea of a pre-Aboriginal culture that would dispossess Aborigines of their legitimacy as original inhabitants was not widespread.
McNiven and Russell go on to cite three observers who did claim to have seen stone circles that reminded them of Stonehenge or Avebury. One was ‘Norwegian adventurer Knut Dahl, (actually a zoologist and academic) who spent two years in Australia, much of it with Arnhem Land Aborigines in the mid 1890s. Dahl, for one, could hardly be supposed to harbour a desire to fabricate evidence in order to help British colonists justify their occupation of Australia. And none of these observers claimed the stones were megaliths, just that they were reminded of Stonehenge. The circular arrangement alone would do that.
They then cite a certain Thomas Worsnop, who, in 1897, wrote:
Stone circles are numerous in the colony of Victoria, especially in the western portion, where monolithic blocks 8ft or 9ft in height surround a space varying in diameter from 18ft to 50ft. The stones in the smaller circles are generally about the size of a man’s head. These stone circles are almost always in close proximity to oven mounds.
McNiven and Russell claim that Worsnop ‘was aware that the existence of the megaliths was questionable’ and query why he was prepared to continue the fiction. This brings me to the question of why, in estimating the size of the stones in the engraving, they erred on the conservative side. One reason might be because, although Worsnop re-iterated the claim of a megalithic circle, his proportions were also on the smaller side. It is not at all inconceivable that a team of Aborigines could erect stones of only eight feet in height, especially if they were only three feet in girth, as estimated by McNiven and Russell. If Worsnop were part of an unspoken conspiracy to invent fabulous stone structures that could not possibly be attributed to Aboriginal expertise, why did he not go all the way and describe them as being, say 20 feet in height and 15 feet in girth?
In an earlier paper, the Monash duo quote two colonial observers, Angas and Miles, who separately commented on Aboriginal stone circles, Angas saying in 1847:
Burials under tumuli are very common in every part of the northern world. So here at the Clarence river the blacks mark the burial place by placing stones in a circle, and a large upright slab in the centre, even to the present day. They give no other reason for this than it ‘belong to black fellow make it so.’ … Weapons are buried here with the dead, as in Tartary; also among the American Indians, and the early British. Caesar speaks of this custom
— McNiven and Russell, Monumental Colonialism: Megaliths and the Appropriation of Australia’s Aboriginal Past
and Miles in 1854:
The circles are not above twenty feet in diameter: the stones are seldom more than a foot above the ground, and in the centre is an upright stone about three feet high. The natives are very tenacious of any of these stones being moved, especially the centre one. The only reply the blacks make to any enquiry on this subject, and on which they are loathe to speak is ‘Don’t know: black fellow make it so long time ago’.
McNiven and Russell acknowledge that both Angas and Miles ascribe an Aboriginal origin to the site but object to the fact that both suggest they are part of a broader tradition which included ancient Europe. Considering that these structures are found all over the world, the suggestion that they form part of a broader tradition – a human tradition – is hardly controversial, nor does it demean Aborigines.
You can see from this extract from the paper that the authors might be seen by some as steeped in the current zeitgeist of victimhood:
Textual images of stone circles offered by Angas and Miles can be used to detect the cultural and intellectual context within which these authors were operating. As we noted earlier, the colonial project rested on the assumption that the conquering of Australia was rightful and legitimate. Australia had been after all, terra nullius, a land belonging to no-one (Reynolds 1992). The stone circle descriptions were supported by the colonial framework which justified the appropriation of Aboriginal land. Dissociating the indigenes from their landscape, and in this case their site, was achieved by arguing that Aboriginal stone circles were part of a broader tradition which included ancient Europe. The Aborigines were effectively removed from their own unique historical trajectory and incorporated into a world prehistory which was dominated by the West. An extreme example of this dissociating process comes from the false depiction of Aboriginal stone circles near Mt Elephant in Victoria.
It seems to me they are suggesting here that Aborigines do not form part of the human tradition – people that migrated here and brought instinct, knowledge and customs with them – but sprang directly from the Earth during the Dreaming. McNiven and Russell devote a considerable effort to analysing this picture and outline various techniques the engraver has employed to give the impression of how unlikely it is that this was the work of Aborigines, principally, but not only, the size of the stones. For example, they note
The use of dark and light shading is an effective technique for subjugating the Aborigines and their camp. Both the foreground and the background megalith are illuminated vividly with low angle light emanating from the sun on the horizon. The difference between sacred and secular activities is articulated by contrasting the illuminated stone columns, which convey a godly presence, with the small and dark Aboriginal campsite positioned up against one of the stones. …. One of the figures sits disrespectfully upon one of the stones. He is positioned with his back turned away from the light. He literally is seen to reject enlightenment.
— Appropriated Pasts, pages 111-3
The use of dark and light shading is used, and has been for centuries, by every artist crafting an interesting and realistic picture. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, comrades.
They then ask (emphasis added):
Why then was the Mt Elephant stone circle image created within the genre of European megalith representation? While intentionality is difficult to elucidate, the likelihood that those responsible for the image and story made an honest mistake is unlikely as such sites simply never existed. Whatever the case, the important point is that an Australian Aboriginal site was represented as ancient, non-Aboriginal, and a dimension of Western prehistory.
We contend that the creation of the Mt Elephant megalith sites helped European colonists to legitimize their rights to inherit the Australian continent. — Appropriated Pasts, page 113
I agree that an honest mistake is unlikely. What is likely is that, hyperbole and sensationalism within the Fourth Estate not being a recent phenomenon, this forerunner of Pix simply wanted to beat up and beef up the story. Anyone who has queued in a supermarket checkout line will recognize the technique from the lurid magazine covers that front the counter. You know the sort of thing – ‘My Mother-In-Law had Sex with an Alien‘ or ‘Dwarf Trapped 22 Days in Folding Bed‘.
I doubt very much that, in 1877, justifying the colonization of Australia was foremost in the mind of either the engraver or the editor of the Australian Illustrated News.
In summary, in both their original paper and in Appropriated Pasts, McNiven and Russell have provided us with no more than an engraving that shows an exaggerated Stonehenge-like construction and some inferences that they, themselves, have drawn from this. Nowhere do they provide any evidence that people in Australia ever entertained, or even discussed, the idea that colonization was justified on the basis of re-possessing a land previously occupied by some now extinct European culture. It is certainly not to be found in the Illustrated Australian News article that accompanied the pulp-media engraving, the one and only prop for this ludicrous idea.
Buried as it is in an obscure text that not even the State Library of New South Wales has on its shelves, this specious theory could normally and safely be ignored but, having gained undeserved prominence by virtue of its inclusion in Dark Emu, it threatens to become part of the accepted folklore of Aboriginal grievance and, accordingly, simply has to be challenged.
In coming to terms with past injustices, the Aboriginal community does itself a disservice by buttressing its case with false and, indeed, laughable claims.