On the Antiquity of the Dreaming (Not!)

We all know that the Dreaming represents the world’s oldest living culture. The continuity of the Dreaming, and its unchanging nature, are staples of writing about Aboriginal culture, at least in the popular press, and to some extent even in the books that fill shelves in the Aboriginal art section of bookstores in state galleries. The very antiquity of the Dreaming contributes much to its perceived worth, to the sense that there is a core of values that indigenous Australians have managed to preserve for millennia. All this stands in stark contrast to our own “Western Civilization,” which seems to have been leaking spiritual value faster than the Danaid’s jars.

But, really, how ancient is the Dreaming? According to one recently published monograph, not very. In a form that resembles what we know as the Dreamtime today, it has been around not 40,000 years, but more like 4,000. And in some locations far less time than that.

This is the somewhat surprising thesis of a new monograph I’ve been reading in the past couple of weeks: Landscapes, Rock-Art, and the Dreaming: an archaeology of preunderstanding, by Bruno David (Leicester University Press, 2002). If you’re intrigued, head for your local library: the price tag on this 200 page publication is $150.00!

The book is divided into two parts, and the more scintillating theses are presented in the first half. David examines three sites for archaeological evidence that points to changes in material culture that reflect changes in social organization. He contends (quite convincingly, I think) that the Dreaming is the mechanism by which indigenous people organized themselves in relation to country and its resources, as well as to the other people around them. He posits that since these visible changes in the archaeological record reflect changing concepts of social organization, we can in a sense see the Dreaming as a “dynamic and emergent process” that we can date using proven archaeological methods. 

His first example comes from a large mountain called Ngarrabullgan, which lies about 100 km northwest of Cairns. In Dreamtime stories that have been documented during the 20th century, this mountain is known as the abode of terrible monsters and its upper reaches are strictly avoided, even though much of the surrounding countryside is shows evidence of continuing habitation.

David examines rock shelters and other sites that show evidence of use both on and off Ngarrabullgan. Sites in the surrounding countryside show evidence of a long history of continual use into the “ethnographic” Dreaming (the period covering white contact). But excavations on the top of the mountain show almost complete abandonment by about 600 years ago. In David’s argument, this desertion of the mountain reflects or implies the emergence of Dreaming stories about Eekoo, the devil that resides there.

Obviously, this connection cannot be absolutely substantiated in any way, but his interpretation of the evidence in Queensland is bolstered by evidence from other sites across the country.

His second example comes from Arrernte country in Central Australia, where large ritual gatherings focused on the Native Cat Dreaming at Therreyerete were documented at the turn of the 20th century by Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen. These rituals involved the migration of large numbers of people–perhaps 400 all told–to a concentrated area. Much of the time, the men were dependent on seed cakes for sustenance, and David looks at the archaeological remains of food processing sites to date the beginnings of the use of this area for ritual gatherings to about 1400 years ago at the earliest. Although this is the main thrust of his argument and evidence in Arrernte country, he does extensively survey the general area to support his contention that intensive use of the country dates back to about 1400 BP (Before Present).

Here in Central Australia the link between the Dreaming and the archaeological evidence is stronger than it was on Cape York because there is documented ritual activity in historic times that produces the same sort of material record in the stratigraphy of the site over the centuries. 

David’s final example comes from Wardaman country southwest of Katherine and west of Daly Waters. Here the “modern” Dreaming story tells of the Lightning Brothers and how the handsome younger brother stole the wife of his ugly older brother and precipitated an epic battle whose scars still mark the land today. Here in the Top End David has the most direct and obvious link between the Dreaming story and the material record in the paintings of the Lightning Brothers in rock shelters.

I was curious how this episode would work out: how do archaeologists date rock art that has been constantly repainted and cared for over centuries? The answer was, to me, surprising and simple. From the first appearance of rock art at a site, there is a certain amount of debris from the painting process, be it leftover lumps of ochre, or flakes of paint that fall off the wall onto the ground in the rock shelter. Over time, as dirt and debris generally gathers at a site, and the level of the floor in the shelter grows higher, more evidence of painting activity accumulates. By excavating the cave floors down to a level where this ochre debris is no longer found and achieving a dating for that level of the stratigraphy, one can infer the time at which the first art appeared on the walls. In this area, art begins to appear widely at around 1400 BP (or 600 A.D. in non-archeologist reckoning), that is, at about the same time as evidence of large gatherings, presumably for ritual purposes appears in the Central Desert.

The second half of the book deals less directly with evidence of the Dreaming, but rather is devoted to a survey of selected archaeological evidence for the emergence of intensive use of the land. Beginning between 4800 and 3500 BP, the archaeological record reveals significant changes in material culture, most particularly in the use of new types of tools. Starting around 3500 BP, there is an intensification of activity at sites that have been sparsely or infrequently inhabited previously, and spreading evidence of the use of lands that were formerly only marginal, such as offshore islands or wetlands. At about the same time occurs the earliest evidence for the use of millstones to grind seed and its adoption as a staple in the diet. This occurred at a seemingly late date of around 3500 BP in wetter climates, and about 1400 BP in the desert, and suggests an increase in population. As people developed new relationships to the land, their social and spatial organization became reflected in what we now know as the Dreaming. After about 1400 BP, population and land use seem to have remained fairly constant until European contact 200 years ago.

The earliest archaeological evidence presented that can be clearly linked to Dreamtime stories known to present day Aboriginal people dates from about 1400 years ago in Wardaman and Arrernte country, and about 600 years ago in the southern area of Cape York. David does admit, but does not discuss, some evidence of earlier links between archaeological sites and Dreaming stories in Arnhem Land that are significantly older–going back to perhaps 9500 BP. David’s fieldwork has been located primarily in northern Queensland, and most of the evidence presented in the book comes from the region west of Cairns. And while I don’t think that the omission of earlier evidence from Arnhem Land fully undermines the book’s argument, I can’t but wish that he had extended his research and surveys to include it.

David clearly has an agenda here: to debunk the claims of great antiquity and continuity made for the Dreaming. This may seem strange at first in one who is so clearly sympathetic to indigenous people and who has devoted his life to the study of their culture. At times as I was reading the book I found myself asking “What does this really tell me about the Dreamtime?” Why should I care? I think there are good answers to those questions, but they deserve an entry in their own right. I want to start fresh when I try to present those arguments.

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2 Responses to On the Antiquity of the Dreaming (Not!)

  1. Bertrand says:

    Thanks for sharing Will. I like this book, and I will purchase it.
    Looks very interesting and similar to the work done in the Middle East comparing what is written into the Bible and what archeologists are discovering in Palestine and Israel.

  2. Will says:

    Glad you found it interesting. I was quite surprised by it. David is featured in the television series “First Footprints,” and there’s equally fascinating things to be seen there.

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