The story of Torrens and the Real Property Act of 1858 is fairly well known. Torrens took an interest in reforming South Australia’s chaotic deeds-based land system when an acquaintance lost money on a property, owing to a faulty title.
With help and advice from competent friends, and a sustained campaign for conveyancing reform, Torrens won the seat of Adelaide in the first parliamentary election of 1856. His Real Property Act came into effect in 1858. Soon afterwards, Torrens resigned from government to run the new land titles registry.
Under the new system, the location and dimensions of each land parcel were to be surveyed and registered. Every new land owner received a secure grant of title, guaranteed by the Crown.
Torrens: the man and his motivations
Torrens’ interest in market systems is less well known. His father, Colonel Robert Torrens, was both a colonisation commissioner and a noted political economist who wrote extensively on theories of rent, wages, profit and comparative advantages in trade. Colonel Torrens admired the early work of liberal theorist John Stuart Mill, especially his “system of logic” in economic science.
Expert historians, including Douglas Pike, Rosalind F. Croucher, GregTaylor and Giancarlo de Vivo, have described the lives and works of father and son in detail. Still, the intellectual relationship between them remains unclear. How strongly was the son influenced by the father? Did he develop his own ideas on political economy?
One thing is certain: Torrens (the son) expressed strong admiration for Mill. In his prospectus for a new South Australian land bank, Torrens named him “the great economist” and “the most accurate thinker of our time”. He also quoted Mill:
To make land as easily transferable as stock would be one of the greatest economical improvements that could be bestowed on a country.
Land as a commodity
With the Real Property Act in place, Torrens could argue further that land, being immovable and indestructible, was the safest kind of collateral for loans of money. Its “limited extent” made it “yearly more and more valuable”.
So, freeing up the transfer of land for everyone was a stepping stone to freeing up flows of money, which Torrens saw as a good thing.
On one hand, the institutionalisation of land ownership has allowed the efficient, cheap transfer of land parcels via a single, trusted provider. It minimises costs for home buyers and gives them a certain peace of mind. As long as the transfer process is performed correctly, title holders are immune to claims from former owners and their creditors.
On the other hand, it has allowed faster, easier land speculation and wild fluctuations in property values. It seems that Torrens didn’t anticipate the phenomenon of the commodity price bubble and couldn’t foresee growing, public disquiet over market failures.
Privatising the system
In 2014, Victoria’s Liberal government proposed the sale of the state’s land titles office. Treasurer Michael O’Brien explained that “the market can perform those services just as efficiently, if not more so”. However, the Liberals lost to Labor at the November 2014 election and the sale did not go ahead.
Last year, the New South Wales Liberal government floated the idea of privatising the state’s land titles registry. Despite protests and arguments, the deal has gone through. Responsibility for title transfers has been leased to a consortium of investment fund managers. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian promised “more efficient practices and better outcomes for customers”.
Victoria’s recent 2017-18 budget includes funds for a scoping study to investigate the privatisation of its own land titles office. There have been some negative comments in the news media, but the final decision is still some time away.
Torrens, then and now
Is privatisation consistent with Torrens’ ambitions for land-titles reform? If the aim was to free up the trade in land and money by reforming an unruly, inefficient system, further reform couldn’t be called inconsistent.
Once the new system was established, Torrens didn’t stay put to run it. He travelled widely and, when nominated to run for parliament in Britain in 1865, resigned as registrar-general without returning to Australia. If the system mattered more than the people running it, shifting it back into private hands might not be inconsistent either.
But, if privatisation caused delays, eroded security, or raised the price of conveyancing, it wouldn’t be consistent at all. For better or worse, Torrens really wanted land transfers to be quick, safe and cheap.
Although unfortunate, the incident has focused attention on the importance of being able to share scientific specimens around the world, and the vital role that herbaria play in modern science.
Despite being sometimes described as “museums for plants”, herbaria aren’t just natural history storage and displays. In this era of DNA barcoding, big data, biosecurity threats, bio-prospecting, and global information sharing, herbaria are complex and evolving institutions.
The modern herbarium is steeped in tradition and full of antiquities, but it also leads the application of modern approaches to understanding our past, present and future natural world.
The power of 8 million specimens
If you tell someone that you work at a herbarium, most will ask “what’s that?”, or perhaps “oh, what kind of herbs do you grow there?”.
Conventionally, a herbarium is a collection of preserved plant specimens that are stored and managed in an organised and structured way by curators and botanists who specialise in plant taxonomy and systematics.
There are some 3,000 active herbaria worldwide. As a collective, they contain more than 380 million specimens, spanning collections dating back as far as 500 years ago.
In Australia there are nine state, territory or national herbaria that, along with some university collections, hold close to eight million specimens. Four major Australian herbaria hold over a million specimens:
Herbarium specimens exist in many forms, including “pickled” plants or plant parts such as flowers or other delicate structures, dried specimens still attached to the surface on which they grew (like tree bark and rocks), and fruits or seeds preserved whole. But the overwhelming majority are dried, pressed plant specimens attached to archival card. Alongside these specimens there are sometimes drawings, paintings or photographs of the species, which capture details that are not discernible in the preserved specimen.
The Australasian Virtual Herbarium
The plant specimens don’t just exist on their own inside herbaria. Along with the specimens, the accompanying information is vital, such as where and when they were collected, specific details of the environments where they were collected, and who collected them.
In Australia, the major herbaria have been actively adding this information into a digital repository, resulting in a world-leading dataset: the Australasian Virtual Herbarium.
The collation of these resources helped to inspire the development of the Atlas of Living Australia, and gives anyone with an internet connection access to specimen records from around Australia and the world.
Specimen-based, online data sets provide evidence of what species are found in a particular place at a particular time. They are a direct link from the presence of a species in the field, to collections of physical specimens held in herbaria, with the current name (that is, the latest changes in taxonomy) for that specimen.
There are many applications of such evidence including tracking changing species distributions such as ferals and weeds (an example of the weed “Salvation Jane” is shown in the figure above). Herbaria have been active in supporting detection of biosecurity threats. New introductions of species to Australia need careful determination of their identity and herbaria work with agencies to assist with this.
Sometimes, herbarium or museum specimens are the only evidence that a species existed at all. For example Gentianella clelandii, a species of native Gentian, is only known from the collection made of it in 1947 in the South East of South Australia. This species and others like it are likely to have been lost as a result of changing land use in the region at this time.
Samples from Cook, Flinders and Baudin
Important historical, scientific or cultural plant specimens exist in herbarium collections.
Plants collected during the voyages of early European explorers – including Dampier, Cook, Flinders and Baudin – are still found in herbaria. Some of these plants were also shipped live back to Europe, and have been grown in gardens and in scientific collections all over the world.
Remarkably, due to the care in methods of preserving them, these specimens are often in excellent condition more than 200 years after their collection and still able to be used productively in scientific research.
These historical specimens are often the first known collections of a previously undescribed species. If so, they will be designated as “type” specimens by the taxonomist naming the new species. Type specimens are very important as they allow the work of taxonomists to have a global frame of reference. This allows scientists to work out if two (or more) species have been assigned the same name.
Herbarium records enable resource managers to track distributions of both pest plants and endangered plants, providing a historical and current view of how widely spread and common the various species are across Australia.
You say River Red Gum, I say Yarrow
Taxonomy is the science of describing, classifying and naming plants, animals and microorganisms of the world. Taxonomists do the work of describing and arranging plant species into classifications based on their morphology (what they look like), their genes and sometimes other features.
While highly scientific by nature, taxonomy is also vital to society at large. For invasive plant control, for border control, for environmental management and for urban planning, there must be no ambiguity as to which plant species we are talking about. Common names of plants can be misleading, the same plant often having many different common names. For example, the Australian iconic tree species Eucalyptus camaldulensis is known as River Red Gum, Blue Gum, Murray Red Gum, Red Gum, River Gum and Yarrow. We know these are all the same species, because taxonomists can compare herbarium specimens and determine if they share the same characteristics.
Expansion of the search for new biological compounds for human use — including medicines, food, cosmetics and other applications — exemplifies the problem of misapplied taxonomic names. For example the search for bioactive compounds in marine algae yields very different results for different species.
But imagine if there wasn’t a way to apply the precision of taxonomy in the search for information on the characteristics of a species to be used for biological control? Not only would time and money be lost, but the incorrect species could be used and unforseen outcomes may occur.
An example from the insect world is the Southeast Asian termite. A potentially harmful species of the termite genus Coptotermes was known regionally by another name, affecting its management as a pest causing building damage in the Americas and Malaysia.
Herbaria as a research resource
In addition to storing and organising specimens, larger or highly specialised herbaria usually have an associated research program. Focus scientific areas typically include taxonomy, systematics (how living things are classified and named), evolutionary biology, conservation biology and applied botany (using plants for economic benefit) .
Many herbaria have molecular genetics laboratories attached to them. DNA can be extracted from many specimens, even very old ones, and thus they can become a core part of ongoing DNA based scientific research. Today, DNA barcoding can provide a rapid tool for identifying species when flowers or fruits are not available, or if we have only fragments. Globally, DNA barcodes are now available for more than 265,448 species in the BOLD database. This aggregation of DNA sequences, which for plants are linked to herbarium vouchers, are a global resource that can be used in a “big data” context to explore ideas.
The value of herbaria samples extends beyond just the plants themselves. Herbarium specimens have been used to collate data for inferring changes in flowering times, leaf morphology and species ranges with climatic shifts.
Scientists also analyse chemicals that herbarium specimens have been exposed to, such as heavy metals associated with urban development, and different elements incorporated as leaves grow. Knowledge about waxes on leaf surfaces, as well as inhabitation by insects, fungi and bacteria are all possible through herbarium samples.
The global network of herbaria share specimens so that taxonomists and other researchers can benefit from their existence. With online resources making it known exactly what specimens are in which herbarium, there is an ever growing set of demands made on the use of specimens.
Curators who look after collections must balance the requests for using specimens in the present with long term preservation. The ability to track the impact of climate change and other unforeseen influences on plant health may make our current herbaria collections even more priceless in years to come.
In this series, we’ll discuss whether progress is being made on Indigenous education, looking at various areas including policy, scholarships, school leadership, literacy and much more.
Despite improvements to their content over time, secondary school history textbooks still imply that Australians are white.
Textbook depictions of Australianness are not only relevant to experiences of national belonging or exclusion. Research has shown that students who aren’t represented in textbooks perform worse academically.
My PhD research analysed portrayals of Australianness in secondary school history textbooks from 1950 to 2010.
This time frame covers a period of significant social change in Australia, symbolised by the transition from the White Australia era of the 1950s and 1960s, to multiculturalism, which has existed since. Textbooks reflect these broad social changes.
1950s and 1960s – a celebratory narrative
Textbooks published in the White Australia era openly taught a celebratory version of history in which Aborigines were either absent or derided.
White people were portrayed as the developers of the nation. This can be seen in the following extract from the preface of A Junior History of Australia by A. L. Meston, published in 1950:
The object of this little book is to tell the wonderful story of our own country. Fewer than one hundred and fifty years ago no white man lived in our land. In so short a space of time by the pluck, hard work, and energy of our grandmothers and grandfathers, and of our mothers and fathers, a splendid heritage has been handed down to us.
This extract assumes the reader is white. Aboriginal students are overlooked. Similarly, Aboriginal contributions to each and every stage of national development are ignored.
Aborigines are only mentioned occasionally in textbooks from this era. When Aborigines are included, the portrayals are usually negative, as shown in the drawing below.
The caption from this image endorses the derisive perception of Aborigines reported by English explorer William Dampier, who first visited north-western Australia in the late 17th century.
Has anything changed since the 1960s?
The White Australia Policy was replaced by multiculturalism in the 1970s.
Subsequent changes to textbooks reflected this broader social change: Aborigines and non-white immigrants featured more prominently and were portrayed more respectfully.
For example, most history textbooks published from the 1970s onwards have an initial chapter on pre- and/or post-colonial Aboriginal life and a later chapter on post-war immigrants.
Despite improvements such as these, history textbooks still imply that Australians are white. This occurs due to inconsistencies between what is written (the explicit content) and the underlying messages or meanings (the implicit content).
For example, initial chapters that discuss Aboriginal life prior to colonisation are followed by others on European “discovery” and “exploration”, which imply that the continent was vacant and unknown prior to the arrival of Europeans.
There are also inconsistencies in who is considered Australian. Aborigines are named as Australian in initial chapters on Aboriginal life. However, this description of Aborigines as Australian is contradicted by the exclusion of Aborigines from notions of Australianness in the remainder of the text.
The main narrative describes the experiences of white Australians in various eras such as the gold rushes, Federation, the Depression and the world wars. This implies that Australian history is white history and that Australians are white. By excluding Aborigines from these sections, whites are framed as normative or “real” Australians.
Current textbooks show further, albeit, minor improvements compared to those published in the latter decades of the 20th century. For example, Europeans are portrayed as arriving in Australia, rather than “discovering” it.
Another improvement is that references to Aboriginality are no longer restricted to the initial “Aboriginal” chapter. However, Aborigines appear only momentarily in the main narrative. When contrasted with the detailed coverage of white experiences, the cursory treatment of Aborigines implies that Australian history is the story of white Australians.
This pattern is evident in chapters on the gold rushes. The painting below frequently appears in these chapters in textbooks published in the 2000s. This painting, which depicts white people searching for gold, represents the overall focus of these chapters on white people. Aborigines are absent.
Representations of Aboriginality in these chapters are limited to a throwaway line on the impact of the gold rushes on Aborigines, with no mention of Aboriginal responses.
Some 21st-century textbooks also include fleeting references to Aboriginality in chapters on national identity.
Descriptions of nationalism in these texts often include a section on late 19th-century Australian art. This section typically cover iconic artists such as Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin.
However, some textbooks published this century also include an example of Aboriginal art in this section, typically William Barak’s painting “Figures in possum skin cloaks”.
The belated inclusion of Aborigines in chapters on Australian national identity is a welcome improvement. Nevertheless, this inclusion is momentary.
Who’s responsible for textbook content?
According to the Australian Constitution, responsibility for school education resides with the states rather than the federal government.
The first steps in the development of a national curriculum were taken in the 1980s. However, it wasn’t until the development of a national curriculum in 2013 that textbooks began to be marketed on the basis of meeting curriculum guidelines.
The cross-curricular priorities in the current version of the Australian curriculum state that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students should be able to see themselves, their identities and their cultures reflected in the curriculum. This is supported by research which shows that embedding Aboriginal perspectives within the curriculum improves educational outcomes.
Australian history textbooks have made considerable progress towards presenting more inclusive and balanced narratives. However, this progress has stalled. My research shows that Australian history textbooks continue to portray Australians as white. Further work is needed to ensure textbooks adequately represent all Australians.
Maybe seven really is a magic number. 2017 certainly has a lot of tricks up its sleeve. And as we’ve heard in recent weeks, 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, the 25th anniversary of the Mabo ruling, the 20th anniversary of the Bringing Them Home Report and the 10th anniversary of the Northern Territory intervention. These are all significant milestones in Australian history and the legal, political and cultural relationship between Australia’s colonisers and its colonised.
In May, we witnessed the historic coming together of 250 indigenous delegates at Uluru to determine what form of constitutional recognition to seek from the Australian parliament.
But this is not the first time that locally elected delegates have gathered in one location to thrash out the legal and moral framework for establishing the principles through which our nation should be constituted and our people counted.
This year is also the 120th anniversary of the Australasian Federal Convention. In April 1897, ten elected delegates from each of Australia’s colonies (except Queensland, which did not attend) gathered at Parliament House in Adelaide to map the route to nationhood, a Commonwealth of Australia.
Six years earlier, delegates appointed by the colonial parliaments met in Sydney to discuss a draft constitution for federating the British colonies in Australia and New Zealand. But 1897 was the first time that members of the Constitutional Convention were appointed by popular vote. (New Zealand was no longer included, having decided that being part of a trans-Tasman Commonwealth was not in its best interests.) Here was a novel experiment in democracy: allow the people to elect representatives to draft a constitution that would be submitted to the people for their assent.
Much has been made of the lack of unity at the Uluru Convention. But surprise, surprise: the 1897 Convention was no chorus of harmonious hallelujahs either.
Democratic sentiment in the last decade of the 19th century — a mood for inclusivity and openness to progressive change — did not necessarily subvert the age-old mechanisms of power; in particular, the fact that those who have it want to keep it. According to historian John Hirst,
the constitutional conventions were horse-trading bazaars at which premiers and their cohorts worked to protect the interests of their colonies.
Commerce and finance also manoeuvred to secure their short and long term investments. Hirst argues that if Federation was a business deal, as is commonly averred, it was a shaky one, with issues such as tariffs more often “divisive and tricky” than designed to broker consensus.
One major point of discrepancy among delegates at the People’s Conventions is what became known as “the Braddon Clause” (named after then Premier of Tasmania, Edward Braddon) whereby three-quarters of customs and excise revenue acquired by the Commonwealth would be returned to the states. Critics of “the Braddon Claws” feared this would lead to smaller states pilfering the profits of the more populous states. While Braddon’s initiative became Section 87 of the Commonwealth Constitution, many other issues were determined provisionally, with the get-out-of-jail-free rider “until the parliament otherwise decides”.
“Votes for Women”
Perhaps the most significant of the Federal Convention’s sticking points was the issue that would eventually make Australia a global exemplar in democratic practice: women’s suffrage. “Votes for Women” was the international catch-cry of the day, but in Australia, on the precipice of nationhood, the matter turned on what could be termed the “constitutional recognition” of women.
At the 1897 Convention in Adelaide, “warm Federalist” Frederick Holder and Charles Kingston, South Australia’s premier, proposed that full voting rights for all white adults should be written into the Constitution. Three years earlier, South Australian women had become the first in the world to win equal political rights with men: the right to vote and to stand for parliament. (New Zealand women won the right to vote in 1893, but eligibility to stand was withheld until 1919.) Playing with a home ground advantage, Holder moved to add a clause to the draft Constitution that read “no elector now possessing the right to vote shall be deprived of that right”.
Other delegates were left speechless. Edmund Barton, who would become Australia’s first prime minister, found words to express the horror:
As I understand the suggestion, it means that if the Federal Parliament chooses to legislate in respect of a uniform suffrage in the Commonwealth, it cannot do so unless it makes it include female suffrage.
If South Australian women could not lose their citizenship status — their right to be counted — then the rest of Australia’s women must achieve it.
Barton spelled out the inescapable conclusion: ‘It ties the hands of the federal parliament entirely.“
Holder and Kingston threatened that, should the new clause not be approved, South Australia would vote against joining the Commonwealth. Despite Barton’s protests, a poll was taken and the ayes won by three votes. Universal suffrage effectively became the precondition of a federated Australia.
However, the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902, which made Australian women “the freest of the free”, was the same legislation that stripped Aboriginal Australians of their citizenship rights – legal personhood – which they would not claw back until 1967.
If the founding fathers had one thing in common, it was that they were indeed all men. Monochrome photos of the Constitutional Conventions depict the monocultural make-up of the delegates, whether elected or appointed: white, bearded, suited.
But there were plenty of founding mothers in the wings. South Australian Catherine Helen Spence became Australia’s first female political candidate when she unsuccessfully stood as a candidate for the 1897 Convention. (Another 2017 anniversary, albeit one of apparent failure.) Spence’s proposal for political reform – what she termed “pure democracy” — did make it into the Constitution: the principle of one-man one-vote was not her idea exclusively, but she fought for it with ferocious tenacity.
According to her biographer, Susan Magarey, Spence also made proportional representation “the talk of the colony”, later developing a system for the fairest distribution of preferences (a system so unwieldy it has never been implemented). Though Spence was a leader of the women’s suffrage movement in South Australia, her life’s major mission was to rectify the injustices of the electoral system to ensure “the elevation, educational and spiritual, as well as economic, of all humanity”.
Alfred Deakin concluded that Federation was achieved through a series of miracles. The road to nationhood was not always smooth, seamless or virtuous. Vested interests, entrenched prejudices, competing perspectives and outsized personalities meant that achieving “consensus” was a juggling act that required immense skill and determination. Balls fell. Some were picked up and thrown back in the ring. The nation that emerged was, and is, complex and conflicted.
Catherine Helen Spence’s system for electoral reform may not have been initiated, but let’s hope that the ongoing process of constitutional reform ultimately achieves her broader goal: the elevation of all humanity.
This Thursday is World Oceans Day and so critical are the issues facing our oceans – including climate change and plastic pollution – that the United Nations has convened a high-level conference on their future. While its focus is ocean conservation, another aspect of our seas has been conspicuously neglected: the vast array of human history lying underwater.
Millions of shipwrecks and archaeological sites lie under the ocean, including most infamously the Titanic, resting almost four kilometres below the North Atlantic. These relics are just as important as terrestrial sites such as the Egyptian pyramids or the temples of Angkor, and preserve a history of our relationship to the seas. Just like marine ecosystems, this underwater cultural heritage is threatened by climate change, pollution, development, fishing and looting.
Indeed just this week, Australian and Indonesian maritime archaeologists reported that HMAS Perth, a World War II wreck lying in the Sunda Strait and the final resting place for hundreds of men, has suffered extensive and recent damage. There is now less than half of the ship left.
Stories from the sea
Humanity’s close relationship with the ocean stretches back thousands of years. Our oceans have provided food, connected civilisations, facilitated trade, travel and conquest, and also served as a sacred place of veneration. It’s estimated that three million ancient shipwrecks and sunken cities lie on the ocean floor.
Nor are these vestiges of the past restricted to shipwrecks. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of sunken civilisations, buried under silt and sand for centuries. In Egypt, relics of the ancient city of Alexandria include temples, palaces, and the 130-metre Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Egyptian authorities now plan to construct an underwater museum to share these discoveries with a broader audience.
Sometimes, the smallest of objects discovered underwater can reveal as much as an entire city. Lost for centuries in waters off Crete, the 2000-year old Antikythera mechanism is known as the world’s first computer for its use of gears and dials to predict eclipses and track moon phases. The same site has also yielded human bones, from which scientists hope to be able to extract genetic information for insights into ancient shipwreck victims.
Underwater heritage is the legacy of these past activities, bearing witness to the development of both ancient and modern civilisations. But the significance of ocean artefacts extends beyond trade, travel and recreation. For example, the study of this heritage can show us the impact of rising sea levels on human life. Such information serves as a sobering reminder of the effects of climate change, and can also help us to develop solutions to the present environmental problems we are facing.
For 90% of human existence, sea levels have been lower than they are at present. As humans mainly lived close to the water, a large majority of humanity’s development took place on areas that are now submerged. It is only within the past decade that there has been recognition of how important the missing data on the submerged shelf is.
Just as fishing stocks are targeted by illegal poachers, so too is underwater heritage threatened by illegal salvaging and looting. The recent unauthorized disturbance of three near-pristine Japanese shipwrecks in Malaysian waters has destroyed the thriving marine ecosystems that such wrecks support. The damage caused to these underwater museums has had a devastating impact on local diving companies and small-scale fishermen. In Indonesia, these illicit activities appear to be becoming increasingly sophisticated and audacious, including the most recent damage to HMAS Perth.
Heritage in the margins
Despite its importance, underwater cultural heritage remains a relatively new concept, and tends to be overshadowed by other legal and policy priorities. At this week’s UN oceans conference in New York, plenary meetings are focusing on reducing marine pollution, protecting marine and coastal ecosystems, and addressing ocean acidification. Underwater cultural heritage, meanwhile, was discussed in a side event held in the margins.
The 2001 underwater heritage convention establishes basic principles for protecting these sites, but faces a number of challenges. Only 56 nations have signed or ratified the convention, and big maritime nations such as the US, China, and the UK have not. Australia has not ratified, but introduced new underwater cultural heritage legislation in November 2016 that brings this step closer. The heritage convention also faces the problem of perceived competition with the Law of the Sea, which sets the rules for how the oceans are shared and governed.
And what of HMAS Perth? In a strange twist of history, in the 1970s the Australian Embassy in Jakarta became aware that the bell of the ship had turned up in an Indonesian salvage yard. The embassy successfully negotiated the bell’s exchange, and it is now held in the Australian War Memorial: a small piece of history saved through cultural diplomacy.
Underwater cultural heritage is an essential part of our oceans and the way we relate to them. As important as it is to ensure a sustainable future for our oceans, it is also vital that we understand humanity’s historical relationship with them. Our future is invested in our oceans, and so is our past.
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, in a sunset ceremony in central Australia, approximately 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates from across Australia delivered the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Convened by the Referendum Council, the statement put forth an Indigenous Australian position on proposed constitutional reform, rejecting constitutional recognition in favour of a treaty.
Through the establishment of a Makarrata Commission (a body that would oversee agreement-making between governments and Indigenous groups), the Uluru statement expressed Indigenous peoples’ “aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia”.
Yet, 50 years ago, 90% of Australians voted in favour of what they believed would be a “fair go for Aborigines” in supporting the amendment of two clauses within the Constitution.
Fifty years on, there remain some uncomfortable truths about what those amendments did to improve the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.
Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus have argued that the “yes” vote did little to change the administration of Indigenous affairs; nor did it grant Indigenous peoples citizenship rights, voting rights or put an end to racial discrimination.
The constitutional amendments attended to what appeared to be racially discriminatory clauses, which excluded Aboriginal people. The result may well have made Australia appear less racist, but it did not address the inherently racist nature of the constitution.
One example is the amendment to Section 51 (xxvi), referred to as the race power, which excluded Aboriginal people from the Commonwealth’s special powers to introduce laws affecting “the people of any race”.
In 1901, the Commonwealth’s power was put to work with the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act, known as the White Australia Policy, and was rationalised by the then prime minister, Sir Edmund Barton. He said:
I do not think either that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality. There is no racial equality. There is that basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with white races — I think no one wants convincing of this fact — unequal and inferior.
It is hard to imagine how our inclusion as a raced people within this racially discriminatory clause would be emancipatory. In being raced, we were not just named – we were claimed.
When the First Fleet arrived in 1788 on the land of the Gadigal people, it did not just bring convicts, marines, seamen and civil officers. It also brought with it “the Aborigine”, and our racialised construction as Aborigines has served the colonial project well.
Being an Aborigine has circumscribed our being, our relationship to this place and to the state. In being raced, we have become known by the state and through our relationship with it. It has cemented a relationship of power over us, physically, morally, intellectually, politically and legislatively.
We cannot talk about building truthful relationships without being honest about the racialised realities of our social world.
As a racialised subject, I have been subjected to lies dressed up as racialised truths that insist upon our inferiority. Every day, we are forced to contest these lies while having to live with them. In order to get by and get on in a social world that discounts us, we create for ourselves other lies.
I remember the words of my father growing up, insisting that if I worked ten times harder than them, that I would “make it” – that it was possible to rise above my station, to rise above race. These were lies that we lived with in order to make the injustice of the world seem less insurmountable.
But I cannot be blinded to the ways in which my presence is read racially, regardless of how hard-working I am, how articulate I might be or how acceptable my presence might appear.
It does not inhibit the surveillance by police who perceive my presence as a predisposition to an unknown criminal act.
It does not inhibit a rendering of me as an Aboriginal mother or my husband as an Aboriginal father being deemed at risk of not being able to look after my children properly.
It does not prevent colleagues from seeing my presence as a scholar as an equity act, as an accommodation of my intellectual incapacity or as a cultural broker to white knowing.
The lie I can no longer live with is the insistence that our racialised being can be remedied through our own efforts: that if we just acted better, if we just articulated ourselves better, that if we were recognised better, that our lives would be better.
I don’t know if we can overcome race completely, but I do know that we cannot minimise the power of race by ignoring the power of race. Race was the foundation on which this nation was built and it continues to structure our society, its institutions and social life.
We cannot build a better nation by simply piling new bricks or new clauses to cement over the reality of race and the way it manifests interpersonally and institutionally.
While it was a remarkable feat that, 50 years ago, 90% of Australians supported in principle the idea of a fair go for Aborigines, we cannot get too swept away with the idea that the attending to the power of race is unfinished, or that it is confined to a constitutional clause or two.
At every turn, conversations about race are downplayed, dismissed or booed into submission. It would appear that more effort in this country is spent on not looking racist than on not being racist. The danger of the next step (in whatever direction that might be) is that we will fail to tell the truth about race.
We can only hope that the federal government and the Australian people will heed Indigenous peoples’ call for a “fair and truthful relationship” through a fair and truthful conversation about the power of race in maintaining power over Indigenous peoples’ lives and lands.
This essay is an excerpt from Chelsea Bond’s keynote address at the State Library of Queensland’s 50 Years and Counting event.
The Third National Indigenous Art Triennial: Defying Empire at the National Gallery of Australia would have been unimaginable 50 years ago. Despite the widespread goodwill towards Aboriginal people in 1967, there was little recognition that they had a living visual culture. Those few curators, such as the late Tony Tuckson, who admired the aesthetic qualities of the intricate forms made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote areas of the north, rejected as kitsch works by artists such as Albert Namatjira who incorporated western traditions.
For the last three decades, Indigenous artists working in non-traditional media have made their mark, including at the two preceding National Indigenous Art Triennials and at national and international art exhibitions – including the Venice Biennale. It is not news to say that some of Australia’s most admired artists are Indigenous, so why is Defying Empire such a satisfying exhibition?
It all comes back to that year, 1967. Curator Tina Baum has woven a narrative and an argument around the legacy of that remarkable act of national unity when 90.77% of Australians voted to include Aboriginal people in the census, and to enable laws to be made on their behalf.
Ray Ken of the Pitjantjatjara/Yankunyatjara peoples and Lola Greeno of the Pakana people were adults in 1967. Maree Clarke of the Mutti Mutti/ Yorta Yorta/Wurrung peoples was a small child. Karla Dickens, a Wuradjuri woman was born months after, while Sebastian Arrow of the Yawuru came a generation later in 1994 – but all the artists here can claim to be heirs of the Referendum.
The word “1967” dominates Reko Rennie’s NGA Play installation at the entrance foyer of the building. This forms part of a special interactive project created for the exhibition, challenging adults and children alike. His defiant banner, Always Here, waves at the top of the escalators. His traditional Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay patterns also evoke camouflage.
Some Indigenous Australians survived over the years by camouflaging who they were, protected by paler skin. Others were stolen, their true identities hidden from themselves by the camouflage of institutional lies. This second history of camouflage is especially relevant to Reko Rennie’s OA RR, a gloriously dappled Rolls Royce parked at the National Gallery’s entrance.
Rennie’s grandmother was stolen and in her honour he has recorded his return to Kamilaroi land, filming from above the circular tracks in the red dirt made by the car to assert the ownership of the Kamilaroi people.
The running sore of the legacy of the stolen children runs through Defying Empire. Many of the artists are descendents of stolen children, but for Sandra Hill it is even more immediate. She is a Nyoongar woman who as a child was stolen, as were her mother and grandmother before her. In her Thin Veneer, layers of varnished wood stamp out the homogenised pattern into which she can never fit.
That question of identity lies at the core of Brenda L. Croft’s work. Croft was the curator of Culture Warriors, the first National Indigenous Triennial in 2007, but in recent years has turned her gaze away from the work of others and onto the legacy of her father Joe who was stolen from his Gurindji/Malgnin/Mudparra family when a small child. Her journey back to Gurindji country and the consequence of the Wave Hill walk-off is explored in great detail at Still in my mind, currently on view at UNSW Galleries.
The NGA work focuses on the tough landscape around Wave Hill, the remarkable portrait shut/mouth/scream, based on a fragment study of her grandmother’s face.
As well as children stolen, the history of race relations in Australia is of people murdered, sometimes indiscriminately as in Judy Watson’s exquisite record, the names of places – part of a project to record all the sites of massacres of Aboriginal people in Australia.
Then there are the particular events. Dale Harding’s their little black slaves perished in isolation evokes the 1930 killing of a girl forced into domestic labour and killed when her wooden prison shack caught fire. Harding’s reconstruction includes the pungent smell of the black burnt walls. Harding, a descendent of the Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal peoples, is only too aware of the extent of the massacres in Queensland in the 19th century.
Black days in the Dawson River Country places Victorian style dresses to commemorate the murder of a young girl, killed in broad daylight in the main street of the town now known as Toowoomba. Her murderer (wrongly) claimed she was wearing a dress owned by his murdered mother.
Not all the deaths were deliberate. The glass artist Yhonnie Scarce, of the Kokatha/Nukunu peoples in South Australia, was born in Woomera. She has created Thunder Raining Poison, where glass yams evoke the poison rain that fell on her grandfather’s country at Maralinga bringing sickness and death. Her magnificent control of the medium is seen in the Glass Bomb (Blue Danube) series where dark glass yams are contained in larger glass bombs – blown glass inside blown glass.
The colonial legacies of mass killings are also at the core of work by Julie Gough, from the Trawlwoolway people of Tasmania. Her Hunting Ground videos revisit the site of some of the terrible massacres of the early 19th century, and incorporate reproductions of the smug letters recording the deaths of hundreds of people, offering their bodies for dissection.
A fellow Tasmanian, Lola Greeno of the Pakena people, works in the ancient tradition of making shell necklaces, which she has exhibited for many years. She has produced a virtuoso series of works, with large mussel shells interspersing more delicate shapes. I have become so used to seeing (and admiring) her work over the years that it was a surprise to see her strike a different note.
The room in which Greeno’s work is displayed is near the entrance to the dedicated exhibition space, and is almost a separate homage to the first generation of Indigenous artists to have lived most of their creative life recognised as such.
Greeno from Tasmania, Yvonne Koolmatrie of the Ngarrindjeri people from South Australia, Pedro Wonseaamirri of the Tiwi people from Melville Island and Ken Thaiday senior of the Mariam Mer people of the Torres Strait, have well established records of exhibiting their work in national and international exhibitions.
Koolmatrie’s giant woven eel traps and baskets floated in the Australian pavillion in the Venice Biennale in 1997, her style is well established. But as well as the more familiar works, confidently executed, the exhibition includes a woven spiny echidna, complete with genuine echidna quills.
Ken Thaiday senior’s work has evolved from his original headdresses used in Torres Strait Island dance, to giant variations on these. His presence, along with that of Brian Robinson is a reminder that the reason the National Gallery has named this exhibition the Indigenous Triennial and not Aboriginal is that the people of the Torres Strait Islands may relate to Aboriginal culture, but remain distinct.
It brings into focus the central curatorial concern: how to show the complexities and the unities of an Indigenous culture that crosses both geography and generations, that deals with loss and redemption, that recognises the continuing intermingling of blood in what might be eight generations of colonisation, and yet never loses identity.
There’s a sense of the this in Raymond Zada’s video installation, At Face Value, that morphs a series of faces from black to blonde, from male to female, in a continual questioning of the notion of identity.
Tony Albert of Queensland’s Girramay/Yidinji/Kuku-Yalanji peoples has a different take on the notion of identity. He honours the many Indigenous soldiers who fought in Australia’s wars as equals to their white comrades only to face discrimination on their return. This is a part of a continuing project on his part as he is also responsible for the Aboriginal war memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park.
Albert’s work hangs near the quiet exposition of the most enduring act of defiance of empire – Jonathan Jones and Uncle Stan Grant Senior reinserting traditional Wiradjuri murru (design) into 19th century colonial prints. Uncle Stan Grant Senior has been a leader in the revival of Wiradjuri as a living language, which is also a part of the national revival of Aboriginal languages and the recovery of lost histories.
The defiance of Empire is not about being brash, but about endurance. While empires rise, they also fall. Those who appeared be conquered are now seen to be the long-term victors.
Defying Empire is at the National Gallery of Australia from 26 May – 10 September 2017.
Joanna Mendelssohn, Honorary Associate Professor, Art & Design: UNSW Australia. Editor in Chief, Design and Art of Australia Online, UNSW
On May 27, 1967, campaigners for Aboriginal rights and status won the most-decisive referendum victory in Australian history.
The referendum attracted more than 90% of voters in favour of deleting the two references to Aborigines in Australia’s Constitution. Campaigners for a “Yes” vote successfully argued those references were discriminatory and debarred Aboriginal people from citizenship.
Ever since, and as we approach the 1967 referendum’s 50th anniversary, it has been popularly remembered as the moment when Aboriginal people won equal rights – even the right to vote. In fact, the referendum did not secure those outcomes.
By 1967, all Aboriginal adults already held the right to vote in federal, state and territory elections. Racial discriminations had been removed from the statute books at the federal level and in all states and territories except Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. And even those three laggards were moving toward legal equality.
The former section specified the federal parliament could make laws with respect to the:
… people of any race, other than the Aboriginal race in any state, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.
The words “other than the Aboriginal race in any state” were deleted.
The latter section stipulated that in:
… reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a state or other part of the Commonwealth, Aboriginal natives shall not be counted.
Neither section prevented Aboriginal people from exercising the same legal rights as other Australians. The rights of Aborigines were abridged not by the Constitution, but by laws enacted by federal and state parliaments.
How was the campaign run?
Campaigners for a “Yes” vote, however, told a different story. They insisted constitutional change was a necessary precondition for Aboriginal equality.
Yet the campaigners’ ambitions went beyond legal equality. They sought the inclusion of Aboriginal people as respected members of the national community. This had been a principal goal of Aboriginal and pro-Aboriginal activists since the early 20th century.
The 1967 referendum was the culmination of a long struggle for rights and respect, for social esteem as well as equality before the law.
Accordingly, publicity material for the “Yes” campaign did not focus narrowly on the legal implications of constitutional change. More often, it exhorted Australians to welcome Aboriginal people into the fellowship of the nation. As the opening line of a popular campaign song ran:
Vote “Yes” for Aborigines, they want to be Australians too.
Effectively, the proponents of a Yes vote transformed what could have been a dry, legalistic tinkering with the Constitution into a plebiscite on Australian nationhood.
In achieving this transformation, the campaigners held an unusual advantage. Uniquely among Australian referendums, for the 1967 question on Aborigines there was no campaign for a “No” vote. And even the government broke with convention by providing, in the official advice to voters, only the case for “Yes”. Consequently, campaigners could talk up the importance of the changes they advocated virtually unrestrained.
New South Wales campaign director Faith Bandler told voters:
When you write Yes in the lower square of your ballot paper you are holding out the hand of friendship and wiping out nearly 200 years of injustice and inhumanity.
Hyperbole of this kind is not unusual in political campaigns. What was unusual is that there was no organised opposition to contest the claims of the Yes campaigners, or to counter them with equally extravagant rhetoric for the negative.
The lack of a “No” campaign undoubtedly boosted the “Yes” vote. It was equally important in shaping remembrance of the referendum.
Lacking an opposition, the “Yes” campaigners had a virtual monopoly on the narratives about what the referendum meant. Their expansive conception of the referendum as a plebiscite on nationhood prevailed.
A symbolic win
The triumph of the “Yes” vote was primarily a symbolic victory. It did not win rights for Aborigines, and the government of the day did not utilise the extension of Commonwealth powers secured by amendment of Section 51 (xxvi). Nor did Gough Whitlam’s government after it came to power in 1972.
Whitlam did, however, invoke the resounding “Yes” vote of 1967 as a moral mandate for change in Aboriginal affairs.
Symbolic victories are important. Shortly after hearing of the massive “Yes” majority, veteran Aboriginal activist Pastor Doug Nicholls proclaimed it was:
… evidence that Australians recognise Aborigines are part of the nation.
As Nicholls knew from three decades of involvement in Aboriginal politics, recognition of his people as part of the nation was a hard-fought achievement.
Regardless of its slight legal consequences, the 1967 referendum was an important event in Australian history. It was a symbolic affirmation of Aboriginal people’s acceptance into the community of the nation.
Yet the referendum affirmed only the broad principle of national inclusion. On how that principle should be translated into practice – on the terms of inclusion – the referendum was silent.
It would be wonderful if there was a connection between the Indigenous games of ball and football – like marngrook and pando – and the codified game now known as Australian rules. But, despite several attempts since the suggestion was first raised, no-one has been able to show anything other than the vaguest similarities between some features of the Indigenous games and what the white men were playing in the 1850s and 1860s.
The notion of a personal conduit through Tom Wills, the only one of Australian rules football’s founders with the slightest connection with Indigenous games from those years, was advanced and amplified later. But it is not supported by any evidence in Wills’ quite extensive writing, nor by the innovations he introduced into the game or sought to bring about.
The current revival of the idea of Indigenous influence on football’s origins diverts attention from another, much more uncomfortable and largely untold story about Indigenous relationships to football in the second half of the 19th century.
Indigenous people who played their traditional games, particularly in regional areas, saw or interacted with the white men at football. They would probably have been involved in it very quickly if they had been allowed to do so. But since they were effectively kept out, they formed their own teams and played with each other, or tried to break into local activities or competitions when they could.
This story can be partially gleaned from evidence already available in the colonial archive. It returns a better explanation of why some Indigenous people today believe the game had a history in which their predecessors were deeply involved to whatever extent they could be – given their scarce numbers in Victoria, and the locations on the periphery of the colony where they were effectively confined.
It is more powerful, more persuasive and more noble. On the eve of this year’s AFL Indigenous Round, it has potential to give an indication that those people who tried to break into the white men’s game before 1900 are the real heroes – not Wills.
Did football borrow from Indigenous games?
Football as codified in Melbourne in 1859 was only “a game of our own” initially in the sense that it was based on a cherry-picked selection of very few of the rules of various English public schools, particularly Eton and Rugby.
It was a very simplified form, with only ten rules in 1859. These rules allowed limited handling, but no throwing of the ball, and there was no offside rule.
Nothing in Wills’ voluminous correspondence with the newspapers and with his family and friends offers the slightest hint of any borrowing from Indigenous games. Nor, more importantly, do any of the tactical and legislative innovations he introduced or suggested in the formative period of the domestic game.
The pattern of the game as played in the 1850s and 1860s bears little resemblance to the modern game of Australian football. It was a very low-scoring, low-level kicking and scrummaging game. Weight and strength counted for more than any ability to jump or initially to run with the ball.
Positional play and carrying the ball came in before long, and Wills was involved in pioneering both. But these were not features of marngrook.
In 2016, Jenny Hocking and Nell Reidy wrote the Australian game was different from the English games. The ball was kept off the ground to avoid or reduce injury – and this shows Indigenous influence, they claimed.
The noble art of hacking an opponent’s shins, tripping and holding were the main causes of injury. These were gradually banned by the rules, though they did not disappear as a result. In the mid-1860s, Wills was still in favour of hacking, which was allowed under Rugby School rules. But he could not convince his peers to allow it.
Far from any of the Hocking and Reidy argument pointing to closer links between marngrook and Australian football, it simply reveals the gulf between pre- and early-contact Indigenous games and what the white men did.
Why the claim for involvement?
Several scholars have drawn attention to attempts, some successful, by Indigenous players and teams to break into the white men’s games.
Nobody suggests Indigenous Australians invented cricket, yet they formed the first Australian team to tour overseas in 1868 – and Wills coached the players involved a year earlier. It does not demean Indigenous players in any way to suggest they learned the white man’s game and then tried to take part whenever they could.
They were largely excluded from involvement because there were so few of them. They were restricted to remote areas. And they were subject to the control of the “protectors” and others, and the barriers imposed by the white cricket clubs and their memberships.
Indigenous people were being “ethnically cleansed” by settlers, disease, neglect and policy. If they could not protect their country, fundamental to their being, how could the few survivors penetrate the white men’s effective bans on their absorption into settler society?
Despite that, a pioneering few managed to work their way into the local code of football. It is these people who should be researched and recognised: they are the real heroes.
The key reason Indigenous players were unable to take part in football in significant numbers from 1860 onwards is primarily demographic. By the 1860s, the Indigenous population of Victoria (where what became Australian rules was played) had been reduced to a few thousand. Most were in the remoter parts of the colony or in reservations under the control of the “protectors”.
If, as recent demographic history suggests, around the time the Europeans arrived there was population pressure in Victoria, then the subsequent destruction of the local nations must have been appalling in its severity. If careful recalculations are correct, there may have been around 60,000 Indigenous people in the land area of the later colony of Victoria in 1780, but only around 650 as calculated in the census in 1901. This is a decline of nearly 99%.
What complicates that calculation is the existence of significant numbers of people who were not counted as Aboriginal and did not identify as Aboriginal in any administrative source.
The so-called Half Caste Act of 1886 defined non-pure-blood Aborigines as non-Aboriginal and insisted they be removed from the reservations and become ineligible for public support on the eve of the great depression of the 1890s. This effectively “disappeared” a significant number of people. Such people had every incentive not to identify themselves as Aboriginal.
What does this all mean?
Our interpretation may help explain why, to this day, Indigenous people believe Australian football is their game – not because they invented it or contributed to its origins, but because they forced their way into it, despite all the obstacles, in the second half of the 19th century.
Particularly in regional and remote areas, they had more success in doing so either as individuals or by forming teams to compete. Sometimes they monopolised the game in their locality, and word spread about their capacity to play and beat the white men at their own game.
And yet here in Bendigo, the “pivot” of Australia, was to be witnessed the sight of its best team of footballers having rings run round them (and those very literal ones) by the despised and fast-dying Aboriginal.
Indigenous Australians’ claim to the game of Australian football comes by virtue of participation at grassroots level in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of the skills they had honed long before the white men arrived could be used to develop different ways of playing the game: speed at ground level, rapid hand movement and brilliant hand–eye and foot–eye co-ordination, plus physical play, as well as high marking.
The oral tradition has always had difficulty with precise chronology, so modern-day Indigenous people relying on the stories handed down through the generations find it very hard to pin down when key developments occurred.
It is not unreasonable, then, to conclude it was in the second half of the 19th century that Indigenous Australians began the prolonged process of infiltrating the white man’s game of football and, most importantly, making it their own.
This piece was co-authored by Athas Zafiris, a freelance researcher and publisher of football and popular culture website Shoot Farken.
Archaeological excavations in a remote island cave off northwest Australia reveal incredible details of the early use by people of the continent’s now-submerged coast.
Out latest study reveals that at lower sea levels, this island was used as a hunting shelter between about 50,000 and 30,000 years ago, and then as a residential base for family groups by 8,000 years ago.
As the dates for the first Aboriginal arrival in Australia are pushed back further and further, it is becoming clear how innovative the original colonists must have been.
The earliest known archaeological sites so far reported are found in inland Australia, such as Warratyi rock shelter in the Flinders Ranges and Madjedbebe in Arnhem Land. These places are a long way from the sea, and were once even more so when past sea levels were lower and the coast even more distant.
But we do know that the earliest Australians were originally seafarers. They came from island southeast Asia and no matter which route they followed had to make sea crossings of up to 90km to get here.
The earliest landfall on the continent is now likely to be at least 50m below the present ocean. Until now we have known very little about these first coastal peoples.
For the past five years an international team of 30 scientists has been working in collaboration with the Buurabalayji Thalanyji Aboriginal Corporation and Kuruma Marthudunera Aboriginal Corporation on Boodie Cave, a deep limestone cave on the remote Barrow Island, off the Western Australia coast.
Since the initial early dates for Boodie Cave were reported in 2015, our team has been forensically analysing the archaeological and palaeoenvironmental remains, as well as re-dating the site to build up a robust picture of the lives of the people who lived here.
These dates make Boodie Cave one of the earliest known locations in the settlement of Australia and the earliest site anywhere near the coast.
When Boodie Cave was first occupied, Barrow Island was part of the mainland, with the shoreline between 10km and 20km further west.
The shoreline became even more distant as the planet moved into an ice age and sea levels dropped to 125m below present, around 20,000 years ago. Shortly thereafter global temperatures warmed and, as the ice melted, sea levels rose quickly.
Throughout this long period people returned again and again to Boodie Cave. The limestone that forms the cave provides ideal conditions for preservation, giving us incredible details about the people who lived there.
The cave contains one of Australia’s longest dietary records. These animal remains provide us with profound insights into what people were hunting and collecting from initial settlement onwards, and how they adapted to a new and ever-changing arid landscape.
Besides wallabies, kangaroos and other terrestrial animals, the archaeological deposits contain marine shells transported from the distant coast.
In the deepest levels, when the shoreline was 20km or so distant, there are only four different types of shellfish that we have directly radiocarbon dated to 42,300 years ago. These shells represent the first direct evidence of marine resource use in Australia, and some of the earliest in our region.
With rising sea levels the coastline came closer to the cave and the number and variety of marine resources increased exponentially.
By 8,000 years ago, there are 40 different types of marine shells as well as exceptionally well-preserved remains of sea urchin, mud crab, reef fish, marine turtle, marine mammal and a variety of small and medium-sized terrestrial animals.
By 6,800 years ago the cave and the whole island was abandoned as rising sea levels finally cut it off from the mainland.
We argue that Boodie Cave was used as an inland hunting shelter between about 50,000 and 30,000 years ago before becoming a residential base for family groups by 8,000 years ago.
Dietary remains in addition to shell artefacts, incised shells, shell beads and thousands of stone artefacts show that Boodie Cave was a frequently visited location on the landscape.
Our study clearly shows that not only were Aboriginal people continuing to use marine resources across a period of dramatic environmental change, but they were also exploiting a range of desert resources. This demonstrates a successful adaptation to both the coasts and deserts of northern Australia.
Recent genetic studies suggest that colonisation was coastal, with people rapidly moving around the east and west coasts of Australia before meeting up in modern South Australia.
But the coasts along which the earliest Australians traversed were very different to today’s, not only in terms of ecology but also in distance. In some places the earlier coastline would have been hundreds of kilometres from its present position.
Sea levels rise
Over the past 20,000 years sea level has risen 125m, submerging the continental shelves surrounding Australia and separating the mainland from New Guinea and Tasmania.
Our findings provide a unique window into the now-drowned Northwest Shelf of Australia.
Boodie Cave provides the earliest evidence for coastal living in Australia and gives us an indication that coastal resources have been important to people since initial colonisation.
Nearly one-third of Australia’s landmass was drowned after the last ice age and along with it evidence for coastal use by some of the earliest Australians.
Thousands of archaeological sites have been recorded on the continental shelves of Europe, Asia and the Americas, but no submerged prehistoric sites have been reported anywhere off Australia.
These submerged landscapes of Australia open up an entirely new frontier of archaeological research and will shed even further light on the lives of the first people to arrive on Australian shores.