In a large storage room in the basement of the former Musée d’Histoires Naturelles in Lyon, France, stands a rare relic of the colonial era: a full-body plaster cast of an 18-year-old Badtjala man from K’gari (Fraser Island), Queensland.
While the history of Europe’s “human zoos” is well documented from a European perspective, the research behind my novel Paris Savages builds on knowledge of Australia’s little-known connection to this confronting past; a past with lasting and damaging legacies.
The man from whom the cast was made, Bonangera (Benanyora, Bonny or Boni) stands naked and holds a boomerang over his head. The plaster has been painted a dark brown. His eyes have been coloured red. Rows of horizontal cicatrices, or tribal markings, are visible as scars on his chest. Also discovered in storage were casts of the man’s hands and feet.
The collection began to draw attention in 2009 when researchers at the museum, since relocated and now known as the Musée des Confluences, linked it to the European visit of an Aboriginal trio from Fraser Island.
From the inscription on the base of the plaster foot, “Boni, l’australien”, it is likely this was the same “Bonny” famous physician and anatomist Rudolf Virchow examined in 1883.
Also studied were two other Badtjala people: Jurano/Jurono/Durono (aged 22), known in Europe as Alfred, and Dorondera/Borondera (15), known as Susanne. German man Louis Müller took the group to Germany in 1882 to perform in ethnographic exhibitions.
Cast in plaster
During our document research in Germany, Birgit Scheps of Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig and I discovered a missing cast of Jurano was in fact a death mask, establishing that at least one of the troupe sadly died in Europe.
From the Lyon full-body cast, Bonangera appears proud and serious. It is likely he was concealing pain, for the gypsum plaster was often contaminated with lime and burnt the skin. But it is impossible to know how he truly felt.
Indeed, there are few first-hand accounts of any of the 35,000 performers from around the globe who French researchers estimate toured the West between 1810 and the mid-20th century.
Throughout Germany, France and Switzerland, Bonangera threw boomerangs and spears, participated in mock fights with Jurano, and climbed tall poles vaguely reminiscent of the giant satinay and hoop pine trees that grew out of sand on Fraser Island. He danced and sang in a voice described in the German newspaper Illustrirte Zeitung as reminiscent of “the monotone negro melodies of America”.
In the Lyon basement, remnants of other “ethnic shows” include a canoe used by “Laplanders”, Sami people.
Inside a compactus are masks and shields. Bonangera stares straight ahead, his expression unchanged for, what would now be, 136 years. In an era aspiring towards postcolonialism, the cast is chilling.
Daniel Browning’s heavily researched documentary on the discovery of the cast, Cast Among Strangers, features an interview with acclaimed Badtjala artist and academic Fiona Foley, who travelled with Browning to Europe.
Disturbed by the silences in the history, I contacted Dr Foley about drawing on this episode as the basis for a novel. She informed others in her community and fact-checked aspects of the work.
Browning’s research establishes that members of the Badtjala group toured cities including Hamburg, Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden, Basel and Lyon. It is now known that Bonangera also visited Geneva. Groups were commonly shown at mass exhibition sites such as Paris’s Jardin d’Acclimatation.
The Dresden casts of Bonangera and “Susanne” were made at the Berlin Panoptikum, where my research with Hilke Thode-Arora and Scheps confirmed the group performed. Also in the Dresden storage space were casts of Aboriginal performers from Queensland’s Hinchenbrook and Palm islands who, Roslyn Poignant writes in Professional Savages, were taken by self-confessed “man-hunter” R. A. Cunningham to Europe and America, where they performed in P.T. Barnum’s shows.
While the Sami negotiated contracts, even going on strike if conditions were not met, an 1882 account in the German journal Das Ausland has Dorondera turning her back on the audience. Was she asserting her agency over conditions she was unhappy with?
After performances throughout Germany, according to the Berlin Panoptikum archives, one of the Badtjala men (likely Jurano) was admitted to Berlin’s Charité hospital in 1883. Dorondera disappears from the records without trace.
On August 23 1883, the French newspaper Le Progrès covered Bonangera’s Lyon performances with a “Samoyed” troupe (indigenous people from the Russian arctic) and their reindeer. It is an incredible image to imagine.
His last recorded sighting was reported in Salut Public on September 3 1883. Bonangera performed in Lyon throwing a boomerang, the racist account marvelling that people “little more than monkeys” could accomplish something by “playing” that Europeans could not do. We can only wonder what Bonangera made of his audience.
The last “human zoo” to close featured people from the Congo who were exhibited at the Brussels World’s Fair. The year was 1958.
In July, a new date was published that pushed the opening chapters of Australian history back to 65,000 years ago. It is the latest development in a time revolution that has gripped the nation over the past half century.
In the 1950s, it was widely believed that the first Australians had arrived on this continent only a few thousand years earlier. They were regarded as “primitive” – a fossilised stage in human evolution – but not necessarily ancient.
In the decades since, Indigenous history has been pushed back into the dizzying expanse of deep time. While people have lived in Australia, volcanoes have erupted, dunefields have formed, glaciers have melted and sea levels have risen about 125 metres, transforming Lake Carpentaria into a Gulf and the Bassian Plain into a Strait.
How are we to engage with a history that spans 65,000 years? There is a “gee whiz” factor to any dates that transcend our ordinary understanding of time as lived experience. Human experiences are reduced to numbers. And aside from being “a long time ago”, they are hard to grasp imaginatively.
It is all too easy to approach this history as one might read the Guinness Book of Records, to search the vast expanse of time for easily identifiable “firsts”: the earliest site, the oldest tool, the most extreme conditions. The rich contours of Australia’s natural and cultural history are trumped by the mentality that older is better.
To political leaders, old dates bestow a veneer of antiquity to a young settler nation. To scientists, they propel Australian history into a global human story and allow us to see ourselves as a species. To Indigenous Australians, they may be valued as an important point of cultural pride or perceived as utterly irrelevant. Their responses are diverse.
Recently, one of us, Lynette Russell, asked 35 Aboriginal friends and colleagues of varying ages, genders and backgrounds for their thoughts about Australia’s deep history.
Many of the responses were statements of cultural affirmation (“We have always been here” or “We became Aboriginal here”), while others viewed the long Indigenous history on this continent through the lens of continuity, taking pride in being members of “the oldest living population in the world” and “the world’s oldest continuing culture”.
As expressions of identity, these are powerful statements. But when others uncritically repeat such notions as historical fact, they risk suggesting that Aboriginal culture has been frozen in time. We need to be careful not to echo the language of past cultural evolutionists, who believed, in Robert Pulleine’s infamous words, that Aboriginal people were “an unchanging people, living in an unchanging environment”.
This article seeks to move beyond the view of ancient Australia as a timeless and traditional foundation story to explore the ways in which scientists and humanists are engaging with the deep past as a transformative human history.
Memories of time
The revolution in Australia’s timescale was driven by the advent of radiocarbon dating in the mid-20th century. The nuclear chemist Willard Libby first realised the dating potential of carbon-14 isotopes while working on the Manhattan Project (which also produced the atom bomb). In 1949, he and James Arnold outlined a way to date organic materials from a couple of hundred years old to tens of thousands of years old. The key was to measure the memories of time preserved in carbon atoms.
By comparing the decaying isotope, carbon-14, with the stable isotope, carbon-12, they were able to measure the age of a sample with relative precision. The rate of decay and amount of carbon-14 provided the date.
“A new time machine has been invented”, Australian archaeologist John Mulvaney declared when he realised the implications of the method. In 1962, he used the new technique at Kenniff Cave in the central Queensland highlands and was stunned to discover that Australia had been occupied during the last Ice Age. The dates of 19,000 years overturned the long-standing idea that Australia was the last continent to be inhabited by modern humans and the artefacts he uncovered in his excavations revealed a rich history of cultural adaptation.
The following decade, at Lake Mungo, Australia’s human history was pushed back to the limits of the radiocarbon technique. A sample from spit 17 of Mulvaney and Wilfred Shawcross’ excavations at Lake Mungo revealed that the ancestors of the Mutthi Mutthi, Ngyiampaa and Paakantji peoples had thrived on these lakeshores over 40,000 years ago. Geomorphologist Jim Bowler also revealed the dramatic environmental fluctuations these people endured: what is now a dusty and desiccated landscape was then a fertile lake system with over 1000 km2 of open water.
The date of 40,000 years had a profound public impact and announced the coming of age of Australian archaeology. The phrase “40,000 years” quickly appeared on banners outside the Tent Embassy in Canberra, in songs by Aboriginal musicians and in land rights campaigns. When the bicentenary of European settlement was marked on 26 January 1988, thousands of Australians protested the celebrations with posters reading “White Australia has a Black History” and “You have been here for 200 years, we for 40,000”. The comparison magnified the act of dispossession.
The discovery of 65,000 years of human occupation at Madjedbebe rock shelter on Mirrar land, at the edge of the Arnhem Land escarpment, draws on a different dating method: optically stimulated luminescence. This technique analyses individual grains of sand and the charge that builds up in their crystal quartz lattice over time. By releasing and measuring this charge, geochronologists are able to reveal the moment a grain of sand was last exposed to sunlight.
The archaeological site at Madjedbebe is far more than an old date; it reveals a long and varied history of human occupation, with evidence of profound cultural and ecological connections across the landscape, cutting edge Ice Age technology (such as the world’s earliest ground-edge axe) and dramatic environmental change.
Perhaps most evocatively, throughout the deposit, even at the lowest layers, archaeologists found ochre crayons: a powerful expression of artistic endeavour and cultural achievement.
In the wake of the discovery, in August 2017, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seized upon the new date in his speech at Garma, singling out the possibilities of this deep time story for political reconciliation:
I am filled with optimism about our future together as a reconciled Australia. Last month scientists and researchers revealed new evidence that our First Australians have been here in this land for 65,000 years. … This news is a point of great pride for our nation. We rejoice in it, as we celebrate your Indigenous cultures and heritage as our culture and heritage – uniquely Australian.
Although Turnbull revels in the deep time story, his speech avoids reflecting on the more recent past. Here is a statement of reconciliation that does not address the estrangement that it is seeking to overcome. As such it opens itself up to being dismissed as simply a prolonged platitude.
We cannot engage with the past 65,000 years without acknowledging the turbulent road of the past two centuries.
A story of rupture and resilience
When Europeans arrived in Australia in the 17th and 18th centuries they were setting foot onto a land that had been home to thousands of generations of Indigenous men and women. These groups lived along the coasts and hinterlands and travelled into the mountains and across stone plateaus; they thrived in the harsh deserts and gathered in great numbers along waterways and rivers.
Although Australia is a continent, it is home to hundreds of different nations, over 200 language groups and an immense variety of cultural, geographic and ecological regions. To the newcomers these people were simply perceived as “the natives”, and despite the immense cultural diversity across vastly different environmental zones, the disparate groups became labelled with the umbrella term: “the Aborigines”.
There is a similar tendency today to homogenise the deep history of the first Australians. The dynamic natural and cultural history of Australia is too often obscured by tropes of timelessness. Tourism campaigns continue to tell us that this is the land of the “never never”, the home of “ancient traditions” and “one of the world’s oldest living groups”.
Such slogans imply a lack of change and hide the remarkable variety of human experiences on this continent over tens of thousands of years. While there is great continuity in the cultural history of Indigenous peoples, theirs is also a story of rupture and resilience.
The discovery of old dates at Madjedbebe does not make the history of the site any more or less significant. It simply reminds us that science, like history, is an ongoing inquiry. All it takes is a new piece of evidence to turn on its head what we thought we knew. Science is a journey and knowledge is ever evolving.
The epic story of Australia will continue to shift with the discovery of new sites and new techniques, and by engaging and collaborating with different worldviews. It is a history that can only be told by working across cultures and across disciplines; by bridging the divide between the sciences and the humanities and translating numbers and datasets into narratives that convey the incredible depth and variety of human experience on this continent.
The authors of this article will continue this conversation at a public event in Wollongong on Friday 24 November 2017 at the annual meeting of the Australasian Association for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science. There will be two other sets of speakers, exploring issues surrounding precision medicine and artificial intelligence. Register here.
Twelve thousand years ago everybody lived as hunters and gatherers. But by 5,000 years ago most people lived as farmers.
This brief period marked the biggest shift ever in human history with unparalleled changes in diet, culture and technology, as well as social, economic and political organisation, and even the patterns of disease people suffered.
While there were upsides and downsides to the invention of agriculture, was it the greatest blunder in human history? Three decades ago Jarred Diamond thought so, but was he right?
Agriculture developed worldwide within a single and narrow window of time: between about 12,000 and 5,000 years ago. But as it happens it wasn’t invented just once but actually originated at least seven times, and perhaps 11 times, and quite independently, as far as we know.
Farming was invented in places like the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, the Yangzi and Yellow River Basins of China, the New Guinea highlands, in the Eastern USA, Central Mexico and South America, and in sub-Saharan Africa.
And while its impacts were tremendous for people living in places like the Middle East or China, its impacts would have been very different for the early farmers of New Guinea.
The reasons why people took up farming in the first place remain elusive, but dramatic changes in the planet’s climate during the last Ice Age — from around 20,000 years ago until 11,600 years ago — seem to have played a major role in its beginnings.
The invention of agriculture thousands of years ago led to the domestication of today’s major food crops like wheat, rice, barley, millet and maize, legumes like lentils and beans, sweet potato and taro, and animals like sheep, cattle, goats, pigs, alpacas and chickens.
It also dramatically increased the human carrying capacity of the planet. But in the process the environment was dramatically transformed. What started as modest clearings gave way to fields, with forests felled and vast tracts of land turned over to growing crops and raising animals.
In most places the health of early farmers was much poorer than their hunter-gatherer ancestors because of the narrower range of foods they consumed alongside of widespread dietary deficiencies.
At archaeological sites like Abu Hereyra in Syria, for example, the changes in diet accompanying the move away from hunting and gathering are clearly recorded. The diet of Abu Hereyra’s occupants dropped from more than 150 wild plants consumed as hunter-gatherers to just a handful of crops as farmers.
In the Americas, where maize was domesticated and heavily relied upon as a staple crop, iron absorption was consequently low and dramatically increased the incidence of anaemia. While a rice based diet, the main staple of early farmers in southern China, was deficient in protein and inhibited vitamin A absorption.
There was a sudden increase in the number of human settlements signalling a marked shift in population. While maternal and infant mortality increased, female fertility rose with farming, the fuel in the engine of population growth.
The planet had supported roughly 8 million people when we were only hunter-gatherers. But the population exploded with the invention of agriculture climbing to 100 million people by 5,000 years ago, and reaching 7 billion people today.
People began to build settlements covering more than ten hectares – the size of ten rugby fields – which were permanently occupied. Early towns housed up to ten thousand people within rectangular stone houses with doors on their roofs at archaeological sites like Çatalhöyük in Turkey.
By way of comparison, traditional hunting and gathering communities were small, perhaps up to 50 or 60 people.
Crowded conditions in these new settlements, human waste, animal handling and pest species attracted to them led to increased illness and the rapid spread of infectious disease.
Today, around 75% of infectious diseases suffered by humans are zoonoses, ones obtained from or more often shared with domestic animals. Some common examples include influenza, the common cold, various parasites like tapeworms and highly infectious diseases that decimated millions of people in the past such as bubonic plague, tuberculosis, typhoid and measles.
In response, natural selection dramatically sculpted the genome of these early farmers. The genes for immunity are over-represented in terms of the evidence for natural selection and most of the changes can be timed to the adoption of farming. And geneticists suggest that 85% of the disease-causing gene variants among contemporary populations arose alongside the rise and spread of agriculture.
In the past, humans could only tolerate lactose during childhood, but with the domestication of dairy cows natural selection provided northern European farmers and pastoralist populations in Africa and West Asia the lactase gene. It’s almost completely absent elsewhere in the world and it allowed adults to tolerate lactose for the first time.
Starch consumption is also feature of agricultural societies and some hunter-gatherers living in arid environments. The amylase genes, which increase people’s ability to digest starch in their diet, were also subject to strong natural selection and increased dramatically in number with the advent of farming.
Another surprising change seen in the skeletons of early farmers is a smaller skull especially the bones of the face. Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers had larger skulls due to their more mobile and active lifestyle including a diet which required much more chewing.
Smaller faces affected oral health because human teeth didn’t reduce proportionately to the smaller jaw, so dental crowding ensued. This led to increased dental disease along with extra cavities from a starchy diet.
Living in densely populated villages and towns created for the first time in human history private living spaces where people no longer shared their food or possessions with their community.
These changes dramatically shaped people’s attitudes to material goods and wealth. Prestige items became highly sought after as hallmarks of power. And with larger populations came growing social and economic complexity and inequality and, naturally, increasing warfare.
Inequalities of wealth and status cemented the rise of hierarchical societies — first chiefdoms then hereditary lineages which ruled over the rapidly growing human settlements.
Eventually they expanded to form large cities, and then empires, with vast areas of land taken by force with armies under the control of emperors or kings and queens.
This inherited power was the foundation of the ‘great’ civilisations that developed across the ancient world and into the modern era with its colonial legacies that are still very much with us today.
No doubt the bad well and truly outweighs all the good that came from the invention of farming all those millenia ago. Jarred Diamond was right, the invention of agriculture was without doubt the biggest blunder in human history. But we’re stuck with it, and with so many mouths to feed today we have to make it work better than ever. For the future of humankind and the planet.
Darren Curnoe, Associate Professor and Chief Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, University of New South Wales, UNSW
Human sacrifice was practiced in many early human societies throughout the world. In China and Egypt the tombs of rulers were accompanied by pits containing hundreds of human bodies, whose spirits were believed to provide assistance in the afterlife.
Ritually slaughtered bodies are found buried next to rings of crucibles, brass cauldrons and wooden idols in the peat bogs of Europe and the British Isles. Early explorers and missionaries documented the importance of human sacrifice in Austronesian cultures, and occasionally became human sacrifices themselves.
In Central America, the ancient Mayans and Aztecs extracted the beating hearts of victims on elevated temple altars. It is no surprise, then, that many of the oldest religious texts, including the Quran, Bible, Torah and Vedas, make reference to human sacrifice.
This raises some key questions: how and why could something as horrifying and costly as human sacrifice have been so common in early human societies?
Is is possible that human sacrifice might have served some social function, and actually benefited at least some members of a society?
According to one theory, human sacrifice actually did serve a function in early human societies. The Social Control Hypothesis suggests human sacrifice was used by social elites to terrorise underclasses, punish disobedience and display authority. This, in turn, functioned to build and maintain class systems within societies.
My colleagues and I were interested in testing whether the Social Control Hypothesis might be true, particularly among cultures around the Pacific.
So we gathered information on 93 traditional Austronesian cultures and used methods from evolutionary biology to test how human sacrifice affected the evolution of social class systems in human prehistory.
The ancestors of the Austronesian peoples were excellent ocean voyagers, originating in Taiwan and migrating west as far as Madagascar, east as far as Easter Island and south as far as New Zealand. This is an area covering more than half the world’s longitude.
These cultures ranged in scale from the Isneg, who lived in small, egalitarian, family-based communities, to the Hawaiians, who lived in complex states with royal families, slaves and hundreds of thousands of people.
Human sacrifice was performed in 43% of the cultures we studied. Events that called for human sacrifice included the death of chiefs, the construction of houses and canoes, preparation for wars, epidemic outbreaks and the violation of major social taboos.
The physical act of sacrifice took a wide range of forms, including strangulation, bludgeoning, burning, burial, drowning, being crushed under a newly-built canoe, and even being rolled off a roof and then decapitated.
In Austronesia human sacrifice was common in cultures with strict class systems but scarce in egalitarian cultures. While an interesting correlation, this doesn’t tell us whether human sacrifice functioned to build social class systems, or whether social class systems led to human sacrifice.
Good for the elites
Using what is known about the family tree of Austronesian languages and the data we collected on 93 traditional Austronesian cultures, we were able to reconstruct Austronesian prehistory and test how human sacrifice and social structures co-evolved through time.
This enabled us to not only test whether human sacrifice is related to social class systems, but also get at the direction of causality based on whether human sacrifice tends to arise before or after social class systems.
Our results show that human sacrifice tended to come before strict class systems and helped to build them. What’s more, human sacrifice made it difficult for cultures to become egalitarian again.
This provides strong support for the Social Control Hypothesis of human sacrifice.
In Austronesia, the victims of human sacrifice were often of lower status, such as slaves, and the perpetrators of high status, such as chiefs or priests. There was a great deal of overlap between religious and political systems and in many cases the chiefs and kings themselves were believed to be descended from the gods.
As such, the religious systems favoured social elites, and those who offended them had a habit of becoming human sacrifices. Even when a broken taboo strictly required human sacrifice, there was flexibility in the system and punishment was not even-handed.
For example, in Hawaii, a person who broke a major taboo could substitute the life of a slave for their own, providing they could afford a slave. Human sacrifice could have provided a particularly effective means of social control because it provided a supernatural justification for punishment, its graphic and painful nature served as a deterrent to others, and because it demonstrated the ultimate power of elites.
The overlap between religious and secular systems in early human societies meant that religion was vulnerable to being exploited by those in power. The use of human sacrifice as a means of social control provides a grisly illustration of just how far this can go.