On John Mulvaney and Indigenous antiquity

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John Mulvaney (right) at Lake Mungo in the early 1970s. National Archives of Australia A6180,23/8/74/3

There were two bits of intertwining news yesterday, one exciting, one sad. The exciting news was that a study of Indigenous Australian DNA dated their origins to more than 50,000 years making them the most ancient continuous civilisation on Earth. The sad news was the death of a man who did more than most to place the Aboriginal context in deep time: John Mulvaney, aged 90.

Aboriginal Australia lacked a written language which made it inscrutable to historians, making it easier to write them out of the history. It took experts from other disciplines such as archeologists like Mulvaney, anthropologists like Bill Stanner and ethnographers like Deborah Rose Bird to make sense of the available texts and create a new history for Australia 50,000 years old not 230 years.

Over 10 years ago another geneticist Spencer Wells found proof humans travelled from Africa to Australia and not vice versa when he found Australian Aboriginal blood has DNA mutations, or markers, from Africa that are 50,000 years old, but no African tribes have Australian markers. He also found genetic data which shows humans travelled along the south Asian coastline (at a time when sea-levels were low) before reaching Australia. The new study by geneticists that also traced the DNA journey from Africa to Australia would have been no surprise to Mulvaney. He made the astonishing discovery that although Africa was the wellspring of humanity, the earliest signs of human evolution outside Africa are in western New South Wales.

At the time sea levels were lower than at present and mainland Australia was part of the mega continent of Sahul with New Guinea and Tasmania. There is evidence to suggest humans were here at least 50 kya (thousand years ago).  The earliest direct age for human occupation of Australia is between 50 and 60 kya for stone tools at Malakunanja and Nauwalabila rock shelters in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory.

Humans quickly fanned across the continent.Given we have seen rabbits spread across Australia in a century, it is not unreasonable to believe the human invasion happened in a similar timeframe. The spread was aided by great herbivore trails that crossed the land linking watering and feeding sites. Stone artefacts have been found at Devil’s Lair, a single-chamber cave area, near the south-west tip of Western Australia which date to 48kya.

The oldest human remains are found in western New South Wales at Lake Mungo (Willandra Lakes). A near complete skeleton was found in 1974 sprinkled with powdered red ochre before the grave was filled in. In 1999 paleoanthropologist Alan Thorne said the Lake Mungo 3 skeleton is 62kya plus or minus 6000. However later research in Nature journal said humans had been present at Lake Mungo no earlier than 50kya and no later than 46 kya while the skeleton dated to 45-42 kya. 

Mulvaney was one of the first archaeologists to realise the significance of the find. He had gone on a scholarship in the 1950s to Cambridge to study pre-history and had urged the need for preservation of cultural materials in museums and legislation to protect important sites. He used the new science of carbon dating to push back known dates of human existence in Australia, first to 13 kya, then eclipsed by others to 20 kya, 30 kya and beyond. He carefully packed the Lake Mungo skeleton into a suitcase to take to the National Museum of Australia.

The Lake Mungo finds put Australia on the world map of pre-history. Use of ochre for paint and grindstones for pulverising plant food were skills humans learned in Africa and brought to Australia. From 60-43kya Lake Mungo was full of freshwater and the land was green and lush but the newcomers had to adapt to climate stress. Australia was an ancient land with low fertility, poor soil quality and a low energy ecology. At Kow Swamp in Victoria a population of humans dating to 22-19 kya lived by Kow Lake shore in a period of glacial advance in the Southern Highlands until their shellfish population died out and they moved on.

Mulvaney was instrumental in getting Kakadu and Lake Mungo added to the World Heritage List (and had helped develop the criteria for that list in the 1970s.) The discovery at Lake Mungo showed the power of the site to represent archaeology’s resonance in society and the broader cultural meaning of antiquity. It also helped the political ambitions of Indigenous Australians when they could point to this astonishing connection with deep time.

The new genetic findings, based on a population analysis of 83 Indigenous Australians and 25 Papuans, shows these groups can trace their origins back 50 kya and they remained almost entirely isolated until 4kya. I said these findings would not have been a surprise to Mulvaney. Nor are they a surprise to Indigenous Australians. Larissa Behrendt said they confirmed their oral history (another form of history mostly ignored in the western written tradition). Behrendt said Aboriginal culture and traditions were often viewed through a Eurocentric gaze that failed to see the rich historical wisdom in its values and teachings.”Cultural stories were often illustrated for children without looking for deeper meanings and codes,” Behrendt said. “These stories didn’t just tell a tale of how the echidna got its spikes, they contained – like parables in the bible – a set of messages about the importance of sharing resources in a hunter-gatherer society and the consequences of selfishness.”

What Behrendt is talking about is the dismantling of the racial discourse of white Australia and its near-sighted notions of superiority. What Mulvaney found was pre-history and its awesome timescale was uniquely qualified to make that discourse irrelevant. In an attention economy-dominated society where a week is a long time in politics, fame lasts 15 minutes and soundbytes eight seconds, the deep timescale of Indigenous Australia cannot be discussed enough.

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