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The oldest Culture on Earth

For me the most controversial claim made at the Warradjan Cultural Centre at Kakadu is that that Aboriginal culture is the oldest on earth.  That somehow this culture has been uniquely unchanging since the first arrival of modern humans. 

If indeed this is true, then it is the only place on Earth where human culture has failed to change significantly within centuries, let alone millennia.

Europeans and Asians have evolved dozens of different cultures in the past two thousand years.  Despite the Roman, Danish and Norman invasions the English culture is quite different to that of the Italians, the Danes or the French.  The Māori arrived in New Zealand  but within a few hundred years had evolved a culture that is distinctly different to that of their Polynesian forebears.  Africa had a rich pre-history of cultural evolution, not limited to the Nile valley, for example the Maasai aggressively expanded their culture, at the expense of others, and came to dominate what is today Kenya and northern Tanzania.

In Darwin I saw what seemed to be evidence of shared culture with New Guinea; Indonesia and Polynesia. 

I wondered if this was recent or does it go back for thousands of years.  In particular the Museum has a significant collection associated with the Makassans from Indonesia who sailed thousands of kilometres to collect and process sea cucumber (trepang) for the Chinese market. There is evidence of contact and trade as early as the mid 17th century.  Many words in use in Northern Australia come from these contacts and fishermen prized their superior canoes.

This is a six foot diameter globe in the Russian Museum in Moscow made between 1650 and 1655.


1654 Globe
1650-1655 World Globe


On this globe the west coast of Australia is quite accurately mapped from the middle of the Bight in the south, all the way to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north.  This indicates that not only had Europeans visited but the coast had been surveyed; at least 120 years before Cook landed in Botany Bay.  For further information follow this link to Was Australia Charted Before 1606?

I also saw dates for the first arrival of modern humans that are at odds with my previous understanding.  There seems to be insistence on the earliest date possible and I'm at a loss as to why; as obviously people came from somewhere else.  It doesn't matter when Australia was populated; somewhere else was populated before.

It seems to me that people often report that the way that they do things is the way they have always been done, particularly if taught by their grandparents, but in cultures with written history this is easily disputed. 

Most of us have played Chinese whispers.  As indigenous culture is handed down verbally I doubt that central elements like 'dream time' stories or 'secret initiations' continue to be the same for more than a few generations.

Look at English folk tales of King Arthur and of Robin Hood - total nonsense within a few generations. But we can confirm they are nonsense because there was a parallel universe, in which literate people produced contemporary written records, for example the Annales Cambriae; the Doomsday Book; and the Magna Carta.

Over a longer timeframe climate; landforms and the location and type of plants and animals; are constantly changing. Even sacred sites are transformed over a few millennia. Rivers change path and dry-up or flood; trees thrust aside; water and wind erode; and cliff-sides collapse.


A few hundred years is all it takes
Trees move rocks - few hundred years is all it takes   (photo taken in Cambodia - see elswhere on this website)


It is more than likely that the way indigenous Australians lived when Europeans arrived was simply the latest accommodation to ever changing climate and available resources. Anthropologists are increasingly noting considerable differences across the continent.  For example some communities used sophisticated fish trapping and it seems probable that some form of agriculture was practiced in the Murray valley suggesting a semi-sedentary lifestyle; while in other areas gardening, as practiced in New Guinea, seems to have the norm. 

Animistic religion that attributes magical propertied to plants, animals places and natural phenomena (like lightening, the wind, rain, the sun and so on) is the 'default' human belief system, our natural inclination to believe in magic; as reflected in many children's fairytales.  Belief in an afterlife may be even older, pre-dating modern humans, as suggested by grave goods in Neanderthal burials.

Animistic beliefs are found universally in hunting; gathering and herding communities.  The associated stories vary widely from community to community but inevitable similarities can be found in human communities across the planet like: revering the sun, moon and selected stars;  revering totem animals, plants and sacred places and fearing others; or identifying the elements: earth; wind (air); fire; and water (rain); and honouring the spirits of the dead.  

Animism does not evolve into a belief in Gods, or a God, and the necessity of sacrifice in appeasement, until communities become organised; with specialisation and a structured hierarchy.  Animism was still practiced in parts of Europe until around two thousand years ago and is highly differentiated, encompassing thousands of beliefs; legends and myths. 

Thus Animism, in different forms, was practiced across Australia until the Christian Missionaries arrived.  Although there has been a recent effort by some, particularly in the tourism and welfare sectors, to suggest a pan-aboriginal (common) belief system before Christianity, this is not supported by historical data that documents a wide variety of legends, totems and attitudes towards the dead.

It is notable that while people living 'on country' may not be found, or respond to the Australian Census, 99% of Aboriginal Australians now report religious beliefs directly in line with other Australians: 25% not reporting a religion or reporting no religion; and the remainder mostly various Christian denominations. Less than 1% report traditional animist beliefs.




# Kaustuv 2021-07-11 05:29
Thanks Richard for my first and only lesson in anthropology.
And in the ancient history of my adopted land.
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