Social Archaeology and Aboriginal History

In the nineteenth century the Darwinian theory of evolution and the Victorian belief in progress combined to place the Australian Aborigines firmly at the bottom of a metaphysical ladder of human development in the minds of people around the world. Early twentieth century fascination with the “primitive”–think Picasso–helped to reinforce a sense that the outlying reaches of European empires were temporally as well as geographically distant from the “modern” world. Even ground-breaking and often sympathetic studies of Aboriginal culture like those of Baldwin and Spencer were rooted in attempts to discover the earliest forms of social culture: much of their work stemmed initially from a desire to prove that group marriage, a somewhat indiscriminate form of many-to-many relationships, not only preceded monogamy, but was still practiced or discernible among groups like the Dieri of the South Australian Desert.

The notion that primitive cultures were static and unchanging was essential to the hope that the study of Aboriginal Australians would reveal truths about the origins of man and society. Added to that was the nearly universally accepted notion that hunting and gathering as a modus vivendi was but a precursor to the “rise” of agriculture, and that agriculture was the first step toward civilization as we know it. 

And finally, a pervasive and no less important myth was the notion that primitive, pre-agricultural man was largely at the mercy of the environment. Primitive social organization, culture, even survival were dominated by natural forces, and that any observed change in the prehistoric record–population increase or decrease, the invention of tool-kits, even art itself–was driven by humans’ need to adapt to changes in climate on in the availability of food on the hoof or in the ground, changes over which humans themselves had no control.

Put all of this together and you have a portrait of primitive man, of which the Aboriginal Australian has long been regarded as the exemplar, as passive and helpless, forced to expend all his energy on the simple yet dominating task of mere survival.

Myths die hard. In scientific circles, a revolution in thought can take decades to gain acceptance within the academy, and decades form to work its way into the popular consciousness. Darwinian evolution itself is a prime example of this. Even today the misunderstanding that “man is descended from monkeys,” as if my great-great…..great grandmother were a chimp, is widespread. Ironically, the persistence of the notion that my maternal forebear once lived exactly like an Aborigine persists as well, along with the notion that it is somehow a failure on the part of primitive peoples to evolve that keeps them “backward.”

The notion that early man’s existence and culture was merely a set of responses to changes in the physical environment in which he lived has been the subject of intense debate among Australian archaeologists for over three decades now; indeed, the debate has sometimes been so intense that the notion’s general overthrow has gotten lost in the shuffle. Because thanks to the work of Harry Lourandos, most archaeologists and anthropologists world-wide now accept the premise that, for instance, economic factors could lead to changes in, for instance, tool-making that were once believed to have been stimulated solely by changes in weather patterns or sea levels.

And thanks to the Aboriginal Studies Press, we can now trace the history of Lourandos’s ideas and their impact on the fields of anthropology and archaeology through the essays published in The Social Archaeology of Australian Indigenous Societies (edited by Bruno David, Bryce Barker, and Ian J. McNiven, 2006).

In 1980 Lourandos published a seminal article in World Archaeology entitled “Change of Stability?: Hunter-Gatherers and Population in Temperate Australia” (vol. 11, no 3, February 1980, pp. 245-264) in which he suggested population increase in southwestern Victoria after 3000 years BP (before the present) resulted from the ability of semi-sedentary people’s ability to more efficiently harness energy (in this case, food) by developing technologies (weirs) that allowed them to exploit the local eel population. He went further to suggest that the increased energy yields were comparable to those obtained by agriculturalists in New Guinea at around the same time. In doing so, he indicated that there were parallel paths of resource exploitation among “hunter-gatherers” and “farmers,” where conventional wisdom has assumed that farming represents an “advance” over gathering. Over the next two decades Lourandos marshaled evidence from across Australia in support of this process, known as “intensification,” culminating in the 1997 publication of his monograph Continent of Hunter Gatherers: new perspectives in Australian prehistory (Cambridge University Press).

The Social Archaeology of Australian Indigenous Societies is divided into four major sections. The first of these is “The emergence of social archaeology in Australia.” It functions as an introduction to the life and work of Lourandos, and includes an interview with him by the three editors of the volume, all archaeologists who have been profoundly influenced by Lourandos as well as having collaborated with him over the years. These three chapters provide a clear and comprehensible picture of the concepts and debates surrounding Lourandos’s theories and make for a good introduction even to those who, like myself, knew nothing of the subject before opening the book.

Part 2, “Tyranny of text” examines the ways in which conventional modes of thought and, especially, writing construct our understandings of evidence. The authors here want in part to pay homage to the revolutionary quality of Lourandos’s thought and to defend him against those who are still unwilling to acknowledge his contributions to reshaping archaeological theory and practice in the late years of the twentieth century. They also aim to document the ways in which some of the myth-making I outlined at the start of this essay continues to marginalize Aboriginal people’s place in both Australian history and Australian society. 

One of Lourandos’s radical achievements was a great willingness to incorporate insights from ethnographic studies of recent Aboriginal societies into his explications of the archaeological record. As the authors of the essays in Part 2 acknowledge, every representation of the past is shaped and informed by the attitudes of the present, for good or ill. Lourandos scrupulously tried to enhance his interpretations of the physical record of Aboriginal societies in past millennia by means of inference not drawn solely from that record but also from recorded cultural practice. This use of anthropology in the service of archaeology, and the confluence of the two disciplines, is central to Part 3, “Anthropological approaches.”

The five essays in this third section cover a broad range of styles and approaches, from Marcia Langton’s “social and spiritual construction of water in Aboriginal societies,” to John Bradley’s examination of the development of technologies for exploiting the normally toxic fruit of cycad palms for food, through Franca Tamisari and James Wallace’s exploration of the theme of the transformation of neutrally-conceived “space” to highly charged “place.” In this last mentioned essay, the importance of the Dreaming is foregrounded, which brought back memories of the very first book I discussed in this blog four years ago. That was Landscapes, Rock Art, and the Dreaming: an archaeology of preunderstanding (Leicester University Press, 2002) by Bruno David, one of the editors of this festschrift for Harry Lourandos.

The essays of Part 4, “Late Holocene change,” return the focus to strict archaeological studies ranging from excavations of burial sites in South Australia through Western Desert rock art (and language) on up to excavations of rock-shelters in the Torres Strait. I found these essays to be the most challenging in the collection, as I have little grounding in the vocabulary and methodology of archaeology and could easily lose the thread of an argument while searching for a concise definition of “Harris lines” and their significance in assessing diet and by extension climate. Once I grasped the convention of presenting raw data and only then following up with a discussion, I fared better; at first I felt hopelessly ignorant, but a little patience made these essays both comprehensible and rewarding.

There is a fifth part to the book, a single chapter under the rubric of “Extending the boundaries.” Although many of the essays in the earlier parts of the book do indeed extend the boundaries of Lourandos’s work into new areas of research, Barbara Bender’s final chapter also extends the book’s geographical reach by demonstrating the influence of Lourandos’s approaches on the reconstruction of a Bronze-Age site in England’s Cornwall. Bender’s essay is part memoir, part post-modernist reflection on the field, and part research report. In many ways it unifies the investigative strategies and theoretical stances that have been exposed throughout the preceding essays in The Social Archaeology of Australian Indigenous Societies, including a focus on the unexpected ways in which archaeology can affect and be affected by the lives of the descendants of those it studies.

In the end, such repercussions of how the past is reconstructed and the stories that we tell ourselves about our ancestors do indeed have significant impacts on modern societies. Sadly, in the case of Australia, the stories too often reinforce myths of Eurocentric sophistication and progress at the expense of Indigenous people. Ironically, the romanticizing twenty-first century eco-warrior/guardian movement that seeks to position the Australian Aborigine as uniquely in harmony with the natural world, environmentally aware and in balance, may in fact be unwittingly reiterating the primitivizing myth of an environmentally driven culture lacking in human agency. The Social Archaeology of Australian Indigenous Societies opened my eyes to a field of scientific investigation about which I knew almost nothing; I had no memory of hearing Harry Lourandos’s name before reading the opening chapter. But this book also opened my eyes to a new understanding of social responsibility in scientific investigation while at the same time educating me to some of the fundamentals of that science, all of which made for a most rewarding experience.

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