Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

History revisited - misconceptions of Aboriginal material possessions

In this column, I want to take you deep into New England’s past, well before the arrival of the Europeans. New England as such did not exist, of course. That was a later European construct.

There is still, I think, a belief that the Aboriginal peoples were an unchanging people living in an unchanging land. That holds even though we now know that the Aborigines modified the landscape to suit their needs, that Aboriginal life including the technology used changed many times over the millennia of Aboriginal occupation of this continent.

There is also a deeply held perception that the Aborigines were poor in material things but rich in imaginative and spiritual life. I am sure that the second is true, in part because the Aborigines did not have to work as hard as the later Europeans to feed and house themselves. They had more time available for other things, for companionship and ceremony.

The idea that the Aborigines were poor in material things dates back to the early days of European settlement. It’s partly a matter of contrast between the apparent simplicity of Aboriginal life and the clobber that Europeans accumulated when they could afford it. However, it’s also connected to misunderstandings of key aspects of traditional Aboriginal life.

Our views of the pattern of traditional Aboriginal life are deeply affected by our perceptions of nomadic and hunter gatherer life. One of Geoffrey Blainey’s best known books is called simply The Triumph of the Nomads. Blainey was in fact trying to challenge previously held perceptions of Aboriginal life and history, but the title itself arguably acts to conceal.

Aboriginal groups moved on foot across defined territories as food and to a degree fashion dictated. The kit they carried with them was dictated by that life style. This is the hunter-gatherer life style. However, it’s not the end of the story.

Just as the modern Armidale person may have a second house on the coast with its own kit, the Aborigines had multiple homes, regular camping places. The archaeological remains found at those sites are not just the detritus of life, but also things deliberately left behind for use on future visits. You don’t need to carry things if they are already waiting for you.

The landscape the Aborigines moved through was less overgrown, more open than it is now because of regular and targeted burning. However, in the thick bush of the North Coast and Southern Queensland the Aborigines created a network of paths to make travel and communications easier.

Some of these were formed through regular use, but they also involved conscious action to create and maintain. Think of them as roads.

In the drier parts of the North with limited water in dry periods, the Aborigines created wells and water storage facilities to support travel in dry times. With restricted tools, there creation took considerable time and conscious effort. Think of them as service stations!

I will continue this story in my next column. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 1 April  2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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