Monday, June 14, 2010

Aboriginal History (60,000 BP –1605 c.e.)

Aboriginal history from 60,000 years ago until Australia was first sighted by Europeans in 1606 is as complex and varied as the history of any other group of people on Earth. Saying that today’s population of Aboriginal Australians are members of the oldest surviving culture in the world by many tens of thousands of years is not synonymous with saying that their culture has not changed during this very long period of time, or even that it had not changed prior to the arrival of Europeans in the early 17th century. Tremendous ecological changes, from the rise of global sea levels that separated Tasmania, New Guinea, and Australia’s mainland, to the loss of the continent’s megafauna, certainly contributed to great changes in people’s social and material lives. Other changes in social structures, social systems, languages, and technological know-how are also sure to have taken place over the course of this span of 60,000 years. Migration, warfare, floods, drought, animal and plant extinctions, overseas trade, and a vast array of other factors were also at play in the lives of the millions of individuals who lived and died on the continent before the arrival of the Dutch.

Despite this certain diversity and change, the historical record for these populations remains fairly sparse for a number of reasons. First, at no point in their precolonial history did Australia’s Aboriginal populations develop writing, and so they left no record of events. Second, ecological change has placed the earliest archaeological sites on the continent under water. Third, our science is not yet able to verify with 100 percent reliability the dates of organic materials from as far back as the earliest migrations. Finally, vastly different views of the nature of existence between Aboriginal and other peoples mean that Aboriginal oral histories have often been misunderstood when told to outsiders.

As a result of this confluence of factors, most Aboriginal history has to be patched together from a very incomplete archaeological record, linguistic evidence from our contemporary knowledge of Aboriginal languages, genetic comparisons between contemporary peoples who may have descended from common ancestors, oral histories and other stories gathered at the time of the first interactions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, and ethnographic information gathered over the past 400 years of interaction. Of course, a certain degree of conjecture based on these various sources of information is also inherent in this kind of salvage history writing but will be kept here to only the most viable hypotheses based on the hard evidence currently available.