One of the myths of Australian history that many people seem to still believe is the idea that Australia remained untouched by non-indigenous peoples until the coming of Europeans in the age of Colonial exploration. But there is a growing body of evidence that this is not the case.
When you sit down and consider the idea just from a rationalistic perspective, it does not really make sense. People were able to travel here once, whenever the first people found this continent, so whatever means they used to get here would have been available to many other peoples. Polynesians were able to find far flung and tiny islands in the pacific by tracking the fight paths of birds, so it is not credible that other skilled seafarers were not able to find Australia again and again. However, we don’t have to rely on logical deduction to make this assertion, or even just oral history, we have solid evidence of the fact that non-indigenous Australians interacted with the people of pre-European Australia, as the ABC notes,
“The discovery of a trove of long-forgotten, black-and-white photographs in an Italian library has proven that a group of Indigenous Australians formed a community in South East Asia 150 years ago…
…The striking images were taken in the Indonesian city of Makassar in the 1870s, and show half a dozen young Aboriginal men and children from northern Australia.
They corroborate written and oral accounts that describe Aboriginal people moving overseas with visiting Asian fishermen, some prior to British settlement of northern Australia, and some even dating back to the 1600s…
… Large-scale trade
It’s believed the boys and men were among a significant number of Yolngu men and women who moved overseas with visiting Asian fishing crews.
It’s not known whether they left voluntarily or were forced.
The annual visits by Makassan trepang fishermen are believed to have started in the 1600s and continued until 1907, when the Australian government shut down the industry.
Every year, an estimated 2,000 Asian fishermen sailed south to set up camp along the northern coast of Australia…
…There’s plenty of evidence of interactions with local Aboriginal people, with Makassar words, tools, and images being incorporated into tribal culture.”
So, there are several streams of evidence to show that some Australian Indigenous peoples had interactions with foreign fishers and traders from Asia in at least the few centuries before Europeans settled. But there is evidence of more ancient interactions as well.
Genetic evidence shows that ancient Indians from southeast Asia may have made the journey as well. Again, the ABC reports,
“A new study of Indigenous Australian DNA suggests there was some form of migration from India to Australia about 4,000 years ago.
Aboriginal people first inhabited Australia about 40,000 years ago and researchers had previously thought them to be isolated from the rest of the world for thousands of years.
A German study may change that assumption after it analysed about 1 million genetic markers in Indigenous Australians and compared the patterns of variation to other populations.
Doctor Mark Stoneking, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and a team of researchers found the first signs of Indian influence coincided with a time of significant developments to the way Aboriginal communities lived…
…The study shows the earliest Indian link occurred about 4,000 years ago during a time when dingoes first appeared in the fossil record and Aboriginal communities changed the way they sourced and prepared food.”
Recent history, oral history and the observation of Australian authorities shows that Asian fishermen were coming to Australia as far back as at least the 1600s. But DNA evidence shows that such connections can be traced back to far more ancient times as well. Going back as far as we have history we can see that human beings have been adept sailors, capable of traversing long distances across oceans on even the most basic sea vessels. We cannot be certain precisely how this DNA and the dingo arrived here. But we can say that either Indians themselves or people who were connected to ancient Indian peoples perhaps via trade and swapping of slaves, or alliances, or some other way, did interact with the indigenous. The genetic studies, observed cultural changes, and the existence of the dingo here all indicate this.
The similarities between dingoes and some east Asian dog breeds really drives this point home,
“A team of scientists analysed DNA from 211 dingoes from all over Australia, 676 dogs from other continents, 38 Eurasian wolves, and 19 pre-European archaeological dog samples from Polynesia.
The analyses showed dingoes share a high proportion of their DNA with dogs from East Asia. Differences in the DNA between dingoes and East Asian dogs indicated the dingo arrived in Australia 5,000 years ago.
The scientists concluded that dingoes are descendants of domesticated dogs from East Asia. All Australian dingoes may have arisen from a small number of dogs, possibly just one male and one female, that arrived in Australia in a single event.”
So, although it is common in modern Australian political discourse to pretend that there was an unbroken chain of Indigenous settlement in Australia for sometimes up to 40,000 years or more, the evidence clearly contradicts this. And what is worse is that this basic, and errant, assumption is then used to make all sorts of political points that suit modern political agendas. But the archaeological record shows that Australia had successive migrations of peoples, just as did other parts of this world. They do, however, appear to be less common than they were on the Eurasian continent though. Which stands to reason, as Australia was much further away and in some ways a far harsher climate than the very fertile parts of southeast Asia.
This is very significant point, because even many conservative leaning voters just accept that there was this unbroken chain of Indigenous settlement. And some of those same voters want to enshrine this in the constitution, when anthropological finds show that the settlement of Australia is a far more complicated story. We should not be enshrining debatable historical assertions into the constitution, because this will have a chilling effect on science and discourse on the issues.
To grant a particular people group in the modern era special privileges based upon a flawed historical assumption is dys-civilisational, and yet Australia appears to be rushing headlong into such a course. If the genetic evidence is correct, and the very existence of the dingo here suggests that it is, then there is a very strong likelihood that Australia faced warfare and conflict between migrating groups in the past, just as it did in more recent times, just as have most other peoples throughout history. To uncover the breadth of this story should be the goal of modern Australians.
As a nation we should not be endeavouring to try and right historical wrongs and mistakes, by ascribing a sacred status to one particular group of Australians with their connection to the land, and regarding the rest as at best guests and as at worst invaders. These efforts are more likely to perpetuate new injustices than right the wrongs of the past. The increasing efforts of so-called human rights groups, progressive groups, and others, to create special classes of citizenship for Indigenous peoples in lands like Australia have the danger of causing ongoing cultural conflict here. Because it will create tension between different people’s living in Australia, and there is no predicting what will be made of this tension and what political forces will exploit it. However, we can be certain that some will seek to exploit it.
The only real solution to this whole problem is to go back in time and stop the migrations of peoples into other lands. But as this is impossible, to seek to address it through special classes of law only creates the danger of making an imperfect situation worse. At the very least we should be slowing down immigration, because as we see from indigenous history, even when the settlers have peaceful intent, this creates dispossession and conflict over the real history and identity of a nation. This is not good for anyone.
We should also ask this question: if our current government really believes this nation is all indigenous land, why are they so determined to bring in record amounts of people here to occupy it? It would appear that other agendas are at play. Perhaps that is what should be examined?
Matthew Littlefield writes to think through some of the current issues facing society, the Church and whatever else comes to mind that might be interesting to process. Matt's focus is usually historical or scriptural, though he will address current issues from time to time as well. He is a co-author of The Ezekiel Declaration and the book, Defending Conscience, How Baptists reminded the Church to defy tyranny. He blogs most days at YoungGospelMinister.blogspot.com.
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