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Deep Time and Australian History

Tom Griffiths continues our series on History and the Environment, travelling into the longue durée of the Australian past.

'It is easy to forget’, writes archaeologist Donald Grayson, ‘that the antiquity of people on earth had to be discovered.’ Yet that discovery took place only a little more than a century ago. Geologists uncovered and stared into the ‘dark abyss of time’. Did humans have a geological history? Had large animals become extinct, and if so, had they once been contemporary with people? Did deep time and social history overlap?

In the two hundred years following the European invasion of Australia in the late eighteenth century,  the known age of the Earth increased from about 6,000 years to 4.6 billion, the antiquity of humans was discovered, Darwin’s theory of the transmutation of species linked humans and other animals, and a hierarchical progression of cultural stages based on technological differences was sketched for human races.

Australia played a central role in this intellectual revolution. European scientists found that to explore Australian space was to plumb global time. To them, Australian indigenous peoples represented some of the earlier stages of humanity from which European civilisation had evolved. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century voyagers across space – navigators and adventurers such as William Dampier (1652-1715), Abel Tasman (1603-59) and Nicholas Baudin (1754-1803) – depicted Australia as ‘the last of lands’, a phrase suggesting a continent both recent and primitive, recently colonised but by Stone Age peoples. It was not quite the ‘Great South Land’ some had hoped for; it was the final, slightly disappointing piece of the global geographic jigsaw. In the wake of these voyagers, nineteenth-century time travellers such as Darwin, Lyell and Lamarck, and even more their followers, looked to the Antipodes as ‘the dawn of time’, a reliquary of ancient secrets. The phrases – ‘the last of lands’ and ‘the dawn of time’ – were Australia’s first time-place co-ordinates in world history. In the early 1900s, the Australian poet Bernard O’Dowd described his country as the ‘Last sea-thing dredged by Sailor Time from Space’.

But primitiveness did not necessarily denote antiquity and the European settlers of Australia denied Aboriginal people both modernity and antiquity, sandwiching them into a timeless, rootless nomadism that justified their dispossession. As recently as the 1930s, intelligent Australians were still arguing that Aboriginal people had occupied the continent for as little as a few hundred years. Stone-tool collectors who filled museums with truckloads of their finds felt no need to dig deeper for these treasures because they felt certain there was nothing to find below the surface of the soil. Humanity had no deep time in Australia; social history and geological history had no intersection here. Aboriginal people, it was believed, had not been in Australia long enough to have a stratigraphy.

The scientific discovery of human antiquity in Australia has therefore been an especially recent and dramatic event. It awaited the twin revolutions of professional archaeology and radiocarbon dating, both of which emerged in local practice in the 1950s and 60s. ‘No segment of the history of Homo sapiens’, writes archaeologist John Mulvaney, ‘had been so escalated since Darwin took time off the Mosaic standard.’ The 1960s were, in Mulvaney’s words, the decade of ‘the deluge’, ‘the golden years’, ‘the Dreamtime’ of Australian archaeology.

Mulvaney argued that finds at Kenniff Cave in Queensland demonstrated that humans had occupied the continent for at least 13,000 years, but new discoveries pushed this figure ever higher: to 20,000 years in 1965, over 30,000 by 1970; a probable 40,000 by 1980. Dates derived from thermoluminescence and optical luminescence have now extended the human occupation of Australia to 50-60,000 years before the present, although these figures are not universally accepted.

This dating revolution linked Australia to the Pleistocene era; the continent could no longer be seen as ‘the last of lands’ colonised by humans. It also began to suggest an intriguing local human history, enabling archaeologists and anthropologists to offer a distinctive regional interpretation of hunter-gatherer society. When anthropologist Rhys Jones coined the term ‘firestick farming’ to describe Aboriginal land management, he was deliberately provocative in applying the word ‘farming’ to a people allegedly ‘without agriculture’. Different environmental pressures on the Australian continent led to a very different – to Europeans, an unrecognisable – type of farming.

Aboriginal culture, it emerges, was innovative as well as ancient; no longer could it be simply characterised as ‘the Stone Age’ of humanity, nor was it the quintessential hunter-gatherer society. Aboriginal Australia can boast the world’s oldest cremation; perhaps the earliest human art; by far the earliest watercraft; the first evidence of edge-ground axes; an early domesticated species in the dingo; millstones that pre-date agricultural revolutions elsewhere; and some of the most ancient physical remains of modern humans.

If cross-cultural history has challenged the story of Australia as a continental clock that started to tick only with the arrival of Captain Cook in 1770, then environmental history has further complicated the traditional imperial narrative. In the most recent imperial natural-historical writing, scholars have tended to see the era of European imperialism as but a brief period in the history of human interactions with tropical and sub-tropical ecologies. They have revealed much greater environmental transformation by indigenous peoples than was previously imagined, and found much longer cycles of environmental ups and downs, with which the colonial moment has sometimes unknowingly interacted.

So the Australian gaze now turns back across the world and sees Europe, ecologically speaking, as host to a comparatively raw and rapacious flora and fauna, a natural world of colonisers. From this perspective it is Europe that is the ‘new land’, which was colonised by Homo sapiens more recently than Australia, and whose flora and fauna, having suffered greatly in the last Ice Age (to about 14,000 years before the present) are now populated by such invasive, dominating weeds, animals and plants as were pre-adapted to disturbed environments.

This argument is forcefully put in Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters, one of the most controversial and influential long-term environmental narratives of the Australasian region produced in recent years. Flannery argues that the first arrival of humans in Australasia some 60,000 or more years ago – the crossing of Wallace’s Line between the islands of Bali and Lombok – was ‘an event of major importance for all humanity’ and possibly one that enabled a ‘great leap forward’ that took place for our species, in evolutionary terms, around that time. Flannery suggests that, by crossing Wallace’s Line, humans discovered lands free of tigers and leopards, and a natural world unused to mammalian predators where a managerial environmental mentality could blossom. Thus the first Australasians might have been the very first humans to escape the constant threat of rival mammals, the ‘straitjacket of co-evolution’, and the consequent ‘changes in technology and thought undergone by the Aborigines changed the course of evolution for humans everywhere’. It is a startling and provocative claim.

As well as Flannery’s The Future Eaters, examples of Australian histories that have recently taken a dynamic, long-term environmental perspective are George Seddon’s Searching for the Snowy: an Environmental History, Stephen Pyne’ s Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia, William Lines’ Taming the Great South Land, and Eric Rolls’ Australia: A Biography. These five books all travel adventurously in deep time. But they also engage with the culture and politics of modern colonial and post-colonial Australia.

Nature, like ‘the Aborigine’, has often been confined to a schematic or romantic preface to Australian history. Environmental historians, like historians of indigenous peoples, seek to activate those prefaces and infuse them throughout whole books. They aspire to move between deep time and historical time, between global space and local place, between nature and society. They aim (in the words of Stephen Pyne) ‘to animate nature without anthropomorphising it’, to recognise it as an actor in history, as more than a static physical base, as more than a cultural construct. Fernand Braudel, in his famous history of the Mediterranean, explained his determination to avoid ‘those traditional geographical introductions to history ... with their brief reviews of the mineral deposits, the types of agriculture, and the local flora, none of which is ever mentioned again, as if the flowers did not return each spring, as if the flocks were frozen in their migrations, and as if the ships did not have to sail on an actual sea, which changes as the seasons change.’ He wanted to get beneath the history of ‘short, sharp, nervous vibrations’, of ‘vivid passions’, and to lock into the ‘deeper currents’ and the ‘time which flows only slowly’. And so throughout his life he championed the multiplicity of time, and the need for historians to look beyond ‘social time’ or l’histoire événementielle, the history of events, in order to embrace la longue durée, to plumb what he called ‘these depths, this semistillness’.

The new histories of Australia that are now emerging do plumb these depths, but they do not find a semi-stillness. In fact, the contribution of la longue durée to Australian history has been to destabilise conventionally peaceful narratives of Australian ‘settlement’, to expunge the image of the timeless land and to dynamise our human and natural narratives. Australian history, when viewed long-term, is as much about ecological and technological disjunctions as it is about the political stability and adaptability of British institutions for which it has often been celebrated. The arrival of the first humans in Australia 60,000 years ago or more, and then the arrival of the British just over two hundred years ago, rank as cataclysmic dates in world ecological history. In the words of George Seddon, ‘the most important fact in the environmental history of Australia is that it had a radical new technology imposed upon it, suddenly, twice.’ Seddon also reaches into deep time to make sense of the environmental impact of Europeans on Australia, believing that the only event to precipitate a comparable biological instability was a major geological happening, the linking of North and South America in the Pliocene and Pleistocene, which enabled the invasion of South American marsupial fauna by placental mammals from the north.

Travelling in deep time serves various purposes for historians of Australia. For George Seddon, a geologist as well as a humanist, space and time are indivisible, dimensions of the ground at his feet, and so deep time is not an optional scholarly extra but part of the texture and poetry of place. For William Lines, la longue durée enabled him to dramatise the cataclysmic impact of Europeans on the continent and its indigenous peoples, to heighten the apocalyptic tone of his narrative, and to increase our sense of the environmental destructiveness of Western industrialisation and of the Enlightenment. Deep time, for Lines, sharpens a tale of despair. For Tim Flannery, a long-term perspective enables him to do the opposite, to offer a parable of hope. His zoologist’s eye minimises the cultural differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians and sees their common humanity, enabling him to draw lessons across cultures. For example, if Aborigines made mistakes when they first arrived in Australia, if they misjudged the resources of the continent and then learned to adapt and were able to establish an impressive, sustainable civilisation there, then new settlers might, over time, learn to do the same. Stephen Pyne also strives for a structure and a narrative that reaches across Australia’s great cultural divide. For him, deep time offers a way around what he calls ‘the Aborigine-European dichotomy that blocks nearly all Australian studies’, a positive way to transcend the disjunction created by the European invasion of 1788 without denying its power and import. He begins his book with an evolutionary history of Gondwana and the eucalypt, and ends it with the new ideas brought to Australia by the flood of immigrants after 1945, thus leaving ‘the standard dichotomy’ of the Aboriginal and British peoples ‘sandwiched like so much lettuce and tomato between them’. Eric Rolls also uses a multi-cultural account of Australian society to break down our preconceptions of continental isolation in the distant past and the present, and to construct Australian environmental history as a series of major ‘disruptions’. Ecology and multiculturalism, then, both emerge as tools with which to prise open more complex accounts of Australia’s past, narratives that are not sundered by 1788.

This revolution in time has precipitated two re-orientations in space: an imaginative turning from the sea towards the land, and a strategic tilt on the continental axis from south to north. In 1967, historian Geoffrey Blainey coined a phrase and defined the immigrant Australian experience with a book called The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia’s History. Now Australians are breaking down the old imperial image of ‘the tyranny of distance’ and are questioning their assumed history of isolation and containment. The Australian writer David Malouf has remarked that one of the imaginative gifts of Europeans to the land of Australia was their vision of the continent as an island: it ‘was not just a way of seeing it, and seeing it whole, but of seeing how it fitted into the rest of the world’.

Australia was invaded by a naval power, its first colonial culture of authority was maritime, whaling and sealing were the colony’s earliest productive industries, and it took settlers a quarter of a century to cross the first land barrier, the Blue Mountains that hemmed in Sydney. Colonial settlements hugged the coast and were connected to one another by the ocean rather than the land, like islands in an archipelago. Britain established these ‘limpet ports’ more to control the sea and its trade routes than the land itself; they were founded as outposts of international maritime strategy rather than as beachheads from which to penetrate the continental interior. This was an imported, imperial vision, a view from the outside and one looking longingly to distant shores, one which conceived of Australia as ‘like a huge barren rock in an ocean’ with useful strategic promontories and harbours bordering a meaningful maritime map and backing onto emptiness. The continent also turned its back – its huge humpback of desert – on Asia, and looked east across the Pacific Ocean and south to the Great Circle sailing route of high latitudes that linked it to Europe. ‘If Aborigines are a land-dreaming people,’ David Malouf concludes, then ‘what we late-comers share is a sea-dreaming’. This particular invention of Australia saw it as the island continent, upside-down at the other end of the world, surrounded and defined by the sea, ruled by the tyranny of distance, and inhabited by Aboriginal peoples who had been trapped and impoverished by its isolation.

Colonists first viewed Australia from the eastern seaboard and so what was geographically peripheral, the coast, became linguistically central, and was viewed as the place from which things were described as moving outward. In Australia, therefore, the closer one got to the centre, the further ‘outside’ you became. Australia’s inland frontier was called ‘the outback’, ‘the back country’, ‘the outside country’, ‘our backyard’, ‘back o’Bourke’, ‘the Never-Never’, ‘the Dead Heart’. The descriptive metaphors were about hearts and backs, but never about heads or fronts.

According to this vision, north Australia represented the far reaches of empire, a region of late colonisation, a final frontier. Its lifelines were to the southern Australian capitals, and ultimately to Britain. North Australia was the furthest wash of southern settlement, its historical origins in Botany Bay, its administration in Adelaide or Canberra, and its defence against Asia the open sea and ‘the great rampart of islands’ that constituted Papua and New Guinea. As recently as 1963, geographer J.M. Holmes declared that: ‘Australia is Antipodean, not Australasian, and the whole perspective for north Australia today stems from that outstanding geographical fact’. He went on to say that Australia has ‘a European tradition and a heritage as yet almost untouched by Aborigine or Asian adulteration’.

In the decades since Geoffrey Blainey and J.H. Holmes defined the nation as distant and Antipodean, settler Australians have continued to sever formal ties with Britain, and have grown more receptive to Aboriginal perspectives, more self-consciously proud of a multicultural identity, and more alert (and vulnerable) to the economic influence of Asia. The discovery of deep time has also entailed a journey into the ecological rhythms of the continent itself. It has meant adopting an ‘inside’ view of the ‘outside country’, transforming ‘the Dead Heart’ into ‘the Red Centre’. And so the story of Australian settlement, recognised now as ‘invasion’, has changed to meet these new regional realities. Today, it is more likely that Australians would say that they are Australasian, rather than Antipodean. The northern seas do not now seem quite the bastion previously imagined; indeed, they have receded before new understandings of the cycles of glacial maxima and the depth of Aboriginal antiquity. Human contacts with south-east Asia, it has been discovered, have a long history, and now that history has uses. In 1994, the Northern Territory’s chief minister, Marshall Perron, boasted that ‘we have been trading with Asia ... since well before Captain Cook ever heard of the great south land’. Dingoes crossed the ocean to Australia thousands of years ago with visitors from south-east Asia and they also made the return journey. Darwin is now more frequently seen as Australia’s front rather than its back door. 

And so Australians are now more inclined to claim that the isolation of their continent has been exaggerated, that it is Europe rather than Australia that is the ‘New World’, ecologically speaking, and that technological differences in the ancient Aboriginal past were not a consequence of isolation, but were an environmentally-informed choice. In this re-invention of Australia, it is the savanna and not the sea which represented the barrier. It was not the simple geographical boundary of open ocean that primarily shaped Australian civilisation, but the complex ecological reality of soil and climate. Australia was not so much physically isolated by the sea as ecologically distinguished by the land. That is a recent settler insight, full of contemporary social and environmental implications, and it emerges from an Australian history of deep time.

At the heart of this simple but radical conceptual shift is another new regional identity, one that finds a geological genesis in Australia’s own hemisphere. From an environmental point of view, Australia is neither antipodean nor Australasian. Its ecology is neither European nor Asian. Since the mid-twentieth century we have a new word for its evolutionary heritage: Gondwanan. The word ‘Gondwana’ describes the supercontinent once made up of India, Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, Africa and South America. It conjures a whole new understanding of the Australian environment, one that has emerged in our own generation, and is a product of the plate tectonics revolution, the confirmation of ‘continental drift’ in the 1960s. This southern geological and biological creation story has emerged in the same period in which Australia has strengthened its strategic and economic orientation to Asia, and both affiliations – one biotic and the other political – have weaned the continent from the European imperial vision.

The science and politics of ‘rainforests’ provide an interesting example of these changing concepts of southern time and space. In Australia, rainforest was formerly seen to be an exotic element, an un-Australian feature, alien to the image of the wide brown land dominated by eucalypts. So rainforest was characterised as recent and invasive, as outside, as imperial. It was described as a ‘Malayan element’, as ‘oriental’ in character, as ‘Indian in its density and massiveness’, and as infiltrating the continent via Torres Strait and Cape York. But in the 1970s, in time to empower political activism in defence of rainforests, there was a major scientific paradigm shift, partly due to plate tectonics. It was recognised that rainforest had once been the dominant vegetation type across the continent, that it had an ancient Gondwanan lineage, and that what was left were indigenous remnants, not recent Indo-Malayan ‘invaders’. Rainforests were acclaimed as ‘living fossils’, as ‘green dinosaurs’. Scientists even argued that the development of rainforests in Australia did not take place in total isolation; they reject what they call those ingrained ‘Australian ideas of sea-isolation’ and put forward new models of continental drift that depict the detachment and northwards motion of sections of the leading edge of the Australian plate, thus forming a mass of small continental fragments between Australia and south-east Asia as Australia voyaged north, which facilitated two-way biological exchanges even before Australia collided with south-east Asia.

Australians, more conscious now of their indigenous natural and human history, no longer find their country represented as a footnote to empire. The revolutionary and recent discovery of an Australian human history in deep time is at the heart of new ecological and human narratives. It provides a deep perspective on contemporary debates over population, ecological purity, environmental limits, multiculturalism and the legitimacy of modern Australian settlement. It links Australia to world history in new ways, making global human connections well before the expansion of Europe. It undermines that view of the continent as ‘the last of lands’ and gives it various world ‘firsts’. But it also indigenises Australian history, literally internalises it, plumbing the depths of the continent’s natural and human past, localising the Australian story. Isolation, distance, timelessness, primitiveness – these familiar Australian tropes are creatively destabilised by environmental history and la longue durée.

For Further Reading:
  • Timothy Fritjof Flannery, The Future Eaters (Reed Books, 1994)
  • Donald K Grayson, The Establishment of Human Antiquity (Academic Press, 1983)
  • Tom Griffiths, Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia (Cambridge UP, 1996)
  • Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (eds), Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies (Keele UP, 1997)
  • Rhys Jones, ‘Fire-stick farming’, Australian Natural History, vol. 16, 1969, pp. 224-8
  • William Lines, Taming the Great South Land (Allen & Unwin, 1991)
  • David Malouf, A Spirit of Play: The making of Australian consciousness (ABC Books,1998)
  • D J Mulvaney and J Kamminga, Prehistory of Australia (Allen & Unwin, 1999)
  • Stephen J Pyne, Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia (Henry Holt.,1991)
  • Eric Rolls, Australia: A Biography, Vol. 1: The Beginnings (University of Queensland Press, 2000)
  • George Seddon, Landprints (Cambridge UP, 1997)
  • David Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia, 1850-1939 (University of Queensland Press, 1999).
Tom Griffiths is a Senior Fellow in the History Program, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra. 
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