The biggest difference between Australian Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people is their relation to capital. The land, the spirit and the economy were, and are, one entity for Aboriginal people. She is called Mother Earth.
We believe that we come from Mother Earth and will return there and so our relationship with each other and all matter on the Earth is that we are related through the reality that we have and will keep sharing our atoms with all generations of plants, animals and earth.
It is a humbling belief and central to the understanding that we cannot ignore a bird or beetle because those things share the chemistry of our forebears and they ours. We believe that Mother Earth owes nothing to mere humans but we owe our life and allegiance to her and promise never to do her harm. That is the lore, a kind of global Hippocratic Oath. The religions of Christianity and Islam, on the other hand, believe that man shall have dominion over the Earth.
This belief was cemented by the Christian popes’ various papal bulls that venerated the right of their followers to take the lands and lives of other peoples who were not Christians. The bulls are worth reading for their graphic detail and the enormous assumption of their own excellence by those who drafted and declared these documents.
There were no fences for property delineation in Australia. Fences were sometimes built to enclose or herd animals but they were constructed in such a way as not to impede progress across the landscape. Instead, boundaries of language and lore were described on trees and rock and in song and dance. Everybody knew where they stood and although they had responsibility for geographic regions and features and could pass that responsibility to other members of the clan, they could never own it personally.
The links between these language zones are delineated today by the same story and responsibilities. The cultural lines are often covered by our highways: the European roads often assumed the Aboriginal pathway system because of their inherent geographic logic, the easiest path.
We still travel those pathways to reinforce our connections and affiliations with other Aboriginal peoples. David Mowaljarlai’s map of how he understood those lines is a beautiful thing to behold. It is a web, a gentle braid of lines linking us all. Language was passed along these lines: news, food, brides and grooms, invitations, threats, dance, song, images, recipes; all the interactions of humanity.
I came to realise this one day ten years ago when Wadandi people asked me to observe a whale ceremony. I was shocked to hear that some of the language was identical to our own Yuin language. The story incorporated elements of our understanding of the whale’s transformation from land mammal to creature of the ocean. That information must have travelled east–west or west–east or north–south or probably across all the sticky threads of the web.
I was able to take my uncle and brothers back to Margaret River a year later so that they too could hear their story on the other side of the continent. I would love to tell you that story but my uncle is about to do that. I believe it is a story of unity for Aboriginal peoples and I’m sure it can include non-Aboriginal Australians, a gentle story of our connectedness. And when the story says ‘we’ it means all life, all geography because the land is animated too.
In 2019 we were able to identify the site of an event that led to the elimination of all but one of Uncle’s family but he refuses to sanction the m word to describe that event. He invited the descendants of the perpetrators to the ceremony. I couldn’t believe the scope of his heart, nor could I believe that they accepted. One family later bought grain from us to make beer. We are still touched by the giant circle that encompasses us. We feel like family to each other rather than enemies, such is the greatness of that old man’s intellect and generosity.
That relationship with the land and each other meant we could undertake projects collectively. Ceremonies could engage clans from thousands of kilometres away but similarly food production and land care could involve people from such distant lands that the languages of participants were completely different. There were functional or trade languages, known to all, which allowed the work to proceed.
Aboriginal people maintained the land in a system of intense care. Fire was a large part of the strategy. When a fire was planned everybody in the geographic vicinity had to be involved so that people and their crops and habitations would not be impacted. Once again those communications were along the culture lines. You will notice that I don’t use the term songlines. I think it is inappropriate to use the term because it was first used by Bruce Chatwin, an English writer. I think we probably have in our languages a more adequate term and I look forward to us using Aboriginal words to describe Aboriginal concepts.
Once the fire had been used across a landscape to enhance the productivity of a particular group of food crops, people would systematically remove unwanted species of wattle and eucalypts so that sun could reach the desired tubers and grasses.
So, the care of capital was a true common wealth. It was protected and accrued to benefit all and the generations to follow. Was this a form of communism? No, simply because people did not see themselves of central importance, they deferred to all life and honoured all who shared atoms over millennia. This is not just a path of humility, it is a pathway to understanding and compassion. It had been decided to share rather than divide.
This system had to be supported by a rugged system of governance. The lore was adaptive and flexible and this can be observed in any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander group today. I saw delicate diplomatic negotiations conducted in debate, dance and song at a Garma festival (Yirrkala, Arnhem Land) two decades ago and I see it in my own community today.
If we are to survive, we have to be nimble, ready to protect our culture from threats posed by modern politics and internal tensions. The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a wonderful example of the determination to protect culture but, at the same time, to invite non-Aboriginal people to share in it.
Observing this strength and flexibility always moves me deeply. As a student it appalled me to be told that war was the natural condition of man. How depressing to think that the best we could become was the stabber of our brother or chopper of our mother’s head in order to pursue political power and riches. What if that was not the fate of humans but an aberration of history brought about by sedentary culture and political intrigue?
I will tell you a little about a recent lore occasion. The group was responding to some difficult cultural logistics and tensions and developed an artistic response over a period of a week of intense rain and cold in coastal New South Wales. Everything conspired to make people uncomfortable and fractious but the lore held. The resultant ceremony was conducted beneath a full moon across which storm clouds were ripped as if a violent haberdasher was venting spleen.
Firelight lit the bodies of more than 70 dancers. The scene was breathtaking, the theatrical nuance of the most subtle kind, the excellence of performance greater than I have ever seen in all my years of involvement in dramatic productions. But there was no audience. Everybody was a participant.
The proscenium arch is like the property fence, it separates us from each other and precludes our participation in cooperative acts. This is such a powerful statement of human behaviour that I think we need to understand how it was forged. Of course, my attempt at understanding is a speculation based on known behaviours and facts.
Humans in Australia must have begun living as neighbours more than 65,000 years ago. We know this from archaeology conducted by the Mirrar people and Chris Clarkson at Madjedbebe in Eastern Arnhem Land. This adds to, or contests, the Out of Africa theory and I have often questioned why, in Australia, we dismiss the Aboriginal concept that ‘we were always here’. Rather than dismissing this idea as mere semantics I think the age of 65,000 years is asking us to be open-minded.
Jim Bowler’s work with the Eastern Maar people at Point Richie near Warrnambool is suggesting an age of occupation of 120,000 years. There have been many archaeological feathers ruffled by this, but let’s be patient and polite. When I first went to school a teacher told me that Aboriginal people had been in Australia for only 5000 years. By the time I was at university it was 35,000 years and within months that jumped to 45,000 years. Instead of heaping the contents of scientific spleen on Bowler’s work let us consider it a possibility. What if the Out of Africa theory is just a theory? I think it’s worthy of our contemplation.
I like to wonder at those people inventing crayons, axe-grinding techniques, seed processing techniques … and developing rules of society.
There is archaeology underway in Australia that will turn our knowledge of Australian food production and horticulture on its head. Another study involving townships is suggesting that we may need to consider that the first town on Earth was built here and if that is true we will have to consider the birthplace of society. Building a house next to another family is the beginning of society.
For the moment that is speculation but I have been speculating like this for decades because who determines how we might think about our country? Do we clamour to be part of the Northern Hemisphere’s social development, the one whose engine was war, just to justify European occupation of the continent? The alternative, of course, is that the invasion was illegal and destroyed an attempt at human excellence and peace.
This is what I wonder. I think of those campfires around which men and women contemplated the human. They knew that this animal could be honourable and kind, violent and ruthless, productive and lazy, generous and selfish. They knew this from examination of their own hearts and observations of the humans around them.
They must have pondered these characteristics but instead of following a path of dominion and private ownership the Australians recognised the primacy of Mother Earth and the secondary nature of humans. They gnashed their teeth and tossed on their sleeping rugs worrying over human nature but, over how long we don’t know, they developed the lore.
This lore was still dealing with the same animal, the one that could be hateful or loving, violent or peaceful, but the rules of spiritual belief meant that some behaviours became proscribed by lore. The design meant that war for the land was forbidden, because no-one owned it. Genius or accident? I tend towards genius; I think it was the perfect answer to the imperfect human animal.
The languages of Australia are extraordinarily stable and each has ancient reference to its own particular landscape, indicating presence over deep time. Linguists have been studying language trends for decades but the early thought that there had to be an inevitable north–south language movement has been confounded by recent archaeology and linguistics. More and more linguists are now thinking about language stability and the implications that has for the history of societal governance.
That stability didn’t stop acts of violence, greed or hate but keeping capital out of the reach of greedy and violent hands created a peace unknown, perhaps, anywhere else in the world. That is a philosophical and political triumph.
So, if you think of all the generations since those philosophical campfires, how come the violent, ambitious, selfish youth accepted the lore generation after generation, aeon after aeon? Where was the firebrand Bonaparte, the sneaking Caesar, the plotters of coups? What prevented this group of humans from following the path of all other humans in hastening to the forge to beat ploughs into swords? What was it that kept the peace? Was it the intrinsic nature of its fairness, the provision for participation of all in any human activity: art, sport, economy, governance?
We might pose some questions to our own youth. Is war the natural condition of the human? What if we did decide the world is not for sale or accumulation? What if we decided that the earth was our mother and we were no more important than the ant whose atoms we share? They work harder than us too.
Those old philosophers would have been aware of the imperialistic nature of some ants, ones for which the idea of stealing territory from other ants was not forbidden. So, when I think of those old towns and the debates that they accommodated I am in total awe of the power of intellect and love for us, the humans, of which those philosophers were capable. They did not wear vine leaves in their hair as laurels nor did they assume the rich and rare purple cloths and gold for themselves, they simply searched for the best way to handle the upright animal.
I want us to consider that philosophic solution because to dismiss it means that we will forever perpetuate the Tasmanian War, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the ruination of the Aral Sea, the destruction of the Murray–Darling Basin and the Barrier Reef.
I’m hoping we have the modest and profound determination to pursue a philosophy where our personal comfort and wealth are not the pivot of the globe, that poor but patient old girl, Mother Earth. That we take her pivot as our own.
Bruce Pascoe is a Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian man. He is a board member of the Aboriginal Corporation for Languages and was awarded the 2018 Australia Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. Dark Emu (2014), a history of Aboriginal agriculture, won the 2016 NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award.