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Oldest Culture
The myth of the world's oldest culture


Mungo Man

Bradshaw PaintingsThe lost world of the Bradshaws

CitiesWhy no cities or villages?

DreamtimeThe Dreamtime

Megafauna
The extinction of the Megafauna

Migrant Flora and Fauna in AustraliaMigrantion of flora and fauna

wrestling and reconciliation
Wrestling and reconciliation

Retreat of rainforests in AustraliaRainforest Retreat

Aboriginal values


Red Earth Blue Sky

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Out of Africa gene flow

The Myth of the World's Oldest Culture

Can a branch be older than the tree it comes from?

The Out of Africa theory of human evolution proposes that humans evolved in Africa and started spreading across the globe around 200,000 years ago, reaching Australia around 50,000 years ago. For reasons that can be debated, a myth has emerged that the descendants of those humans that first arrived in Australia have a longer continuous culture than those that arrived in Asia, Europe and even those that never left Africa. In a sense, it is a myth that proposes that a one branch is longer and older than the tree.

The myth has been proliferated by people such as former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd and magazines like Australian Geographic, which wrote in 2011:

"ABORIGINAL AUSTRALIANS ARE descendents of the first people to leave Africa up to 75,000 years ago, a genetic study has found, confirming they may have the oldest continuous culture on the planet."

Ironically, despite genetics being a dubious method to define cultural continuity, the genetic record shows that Indigenous Australians are comparatively young. Specifically, prior to waves of migrants from Africa, Europe and Asia was populated by Neanderthals, Homo erectus and Denisovans. Although the pre-African hominins were mostly swamped, they did bred with the Africans and their DNA does survive in Asia and Europe today. Therefore, Europeans can trace their ancestrial connection to the land to around 400,000 years while Asians can trace their ancestrial connection to around 800,000 years. The starting point for Africans (the very source of all humanity) would perhaps be when hominins first starting using tools about 2.5 million years ago or perhaps time immemorial. In comparison, 50,000 years is not a great deal of time.

In some ways, the myth of the longest continuous culture can be likened to the absurd myth of the Great Wall of China being the only human structure that is visible from the moon in that it is believed without any logical base. Furthermore, it is said without any real consideration of what it means.

Ironically, even though it is said as a compliment, the values that make people believe it to be true are anchored in European imperialism, separatism and what is best described a politically correct rehash of old racist beliefs.

European Imperialism

The idea of culture being impressive because it is old is very much a European construct. When Australians of the European cultural tradition used the label of longest continuous culture as a compliment to Aboriginal people, they were doing so in a manner that was alien to the Aboriginal perspective on time. Specifically, Aborigines had the concept of a “Dreaming” which was like a time before time, or a time outside of time. In a sense, the Dreaming was also like all-at-once time in which the past, present and future coexisted as life followed a cycle in which there was no real beginning and no real end.

The Aboriginal approach to history was so different to the European approach that attempts to praise the culture using the "longest culture" label were very ironic. In short, the Europeans were trying to compliment the Aboriginal cultures by using a conception of time that was alien to the Aboriginal cultures. The acceptance of the label can therefore be defined as an example of cultural imperialism and the death of the Dreaming.

Separatism

Aside from being a construct of the European tradition, the myth of the oldest continuous culture is also an example of separatism. All humans share a common genetic and cultural ancestry that is interwoven over millions of years; however, the myth of a longest culture separates Aboriginal people from that genetic and cultural interweaving to define them as a people distinct from the rest of humanity.

The denial of common humanity is the pathway to genocide. Although contemporary political leaders that use the continous culture label show no signs of wanting to instigate genocide, history has repeatedly shown that positive relations between groups can quickly deteriorate when common humanity is denied. Furthermore, perceptions of dissimilarity can be interpreted in different ways to justify bigoted attitudes and prejudiced policy. For example, in 2000, Philip Ruddock, then Australin Immigration Minister, justified the failure of government policy to alleviate statistics of Indigenous disadvantage by saying,

 'We're dealing with an Indigenous population that had little contact with the rest of the world. We're dealing with people who were essentially hunter-gatherers. They didn't have chariots. I don't think they invented the wheel.'

The separation of Aborigines has no factual basis as the cultural and fossil record clearly shows that there was a great deal of interweaving within Australia as well as prior to arriving in Australia. Specifically, the fossil record shows that 60,000 years ago, Australia was populated by thin-boned 'gracile' people with skeletal structures like Indigenous people of today. Between 10,000 and 50,000 BCE, Australia was populated by humans with thick 'robust' skeletons that were unlike Aboriginal people today. From about 10,000 years ago, the gracile skeletons again dominate the fossil reord.

Genetic testing has found that Aborigines has found that up to 10% of northern Australian Aboriginal DNA can be traced to Indian migrants that arrived in Australia about 4,000 years ago. There is also a divergence of Manama (Phillipino ethnic group) and Aborigines around 36,000 years ago.

Ainu of Japan

The Ainu of northern Japan were hunter gatherers until the start of the 20th century. With curly hair, and relatively dark skin, they indicated that the movement of people in prehistoric times was not widely understood.

Just as the fossil and genetic record shows evidence of humans on the move, so does the rock art. The oldest rock art, known as the Bradshaws, has been dated at 17,500+ years and the style is spread over 50 000 sq. km of northern Australia. The art is unusual for Palaeolithic art because humans, rather than animals, dominate the subject matter. (Human subjects usually start dominating art in agricultural societies where hierarchical systems of status develop). Aside from the human subjects, the art has some surprises in that seafaring boats are depicted as is a line of deer. (The type of boat depicted is usually carved with metal tools and until European colonisation, deer were never known to exist in Australia.)

Bradshaws - Boat Painting

(Winyalkan Island)The ends of the boat are almost as high as a person sitting upright. Was the boat carved and if so, what kinds of tools were used to carve it? Was the boat a depiction of the artist's own community, invaders or traders?

Deer painting - Bradshaws

Prehistoric painting of a line of deers in north Australia. Was the line of deer seen in Australia or perhaps seen in Indonesia where deer are known to exist?

Much of the rock art being created in northern Australia at the time of European colonisation was more typical of art created by hunter gatherers with a strong focus on animals along with some anthropomorphism and dreaming creatures. In southern areas of Australia, most of the art was ephemeral as it was painted on the body or made out of sand. There were some isolated examples of carving animal shapes into rock walls.

Kakadu rock art

Anthropomorphism and dreaming creatures in Kakadu rock shelters.

Finally, Aboriginal languages indicate a degree of mixing and sharing. Some linguists believe the origin of the 250 contemporary Aboriginal languages can be traced to a proto-language that spread through Australia 5000 to 6000 years ago. Others have categorised the languages into 27 language families and isolates, the later mean that they have not been shown to have been descended from any other language groups. In all, a mosaic of distinctive languages where some have commonalities is the kind of profile that would be expected of a region that has had multiple migrations.

Cultural discrimination

Most Europeans use the rise of civilisation around 5,000 to 10,000 years ago as their cultural starting point. As a result of this cultural starting point, the 400,000 years of Stone Age that preceded the rise of civilisation is segmented off into a somewhat derogatory category.  Until genetic testing proved otherwise, the Neanderthals (the people who dominated most of the European Stone Age) were not even seen as human and the label was used as an insult for those deemed to be uncivilised.

It is only because Europeans have a negative association with Stone Age peoples that they don’t identify with their own Stone Age heritage. By extension, it is only because Europeans don’t identify with their Stone Age heritage that they see their 10,000 years of civilisation as "less old" than 50,000 years of Aborigines in Stone Age Australia. Admittedly, Asians also tend to use the rise of civilisation as their cultural starting points; nevertheless, the likes of 800,000 year-old Peking Man and Java man are embraced as their ancestors in the way the Neanderthals of Europe have never been embraced.

In centuries past, European academics defined Aboriginal cultures as the most primitive on earth and Aborigines as the least evolved people. In many respects, the myth of the oldest culture is simply a politically correct rephrasing of these old racist attitudes.

 

 

 

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"They look ancient but at 10,000 years of age they’re much younger than the lightly built Mungo people. How could that be? " Mungo Man

"The Bradshaw Paintings are incredibly sophisticated, yet they are not recent creations but originate from an unknown past period which some suggest could have been 50,000 years ago." Bradshaws

"The reduction of plant diversity, however it came about, would have led to the extinction of specialized herbivores and indirectly to the extinction of their non-human predators." Megafauna extinction

" Is the keelback’s ability to coexist with toads a function of its ancestral Asian origins, or a consequence of rapid adaptation since cane toads arrived in Australia?" Migrant flora and fauna

"I've set myself the modest task of trying to explain the broad pattern of human history, on all the continents, for the last 13,000 years. Why did history take such different evolutionary courses for peoples of different continents? (Jared Diamond)" Why didn't Aborigines build cities?

"It then dawned on the old man lizard that the lesson to be learnt by watching the kangaroos, was that death need not be the outcome of the fight." Wrestling and reconciliation