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Recovered Aboriginal songs offer clues to 19th century mystery of the shipwrecked ‘white woman’



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An image of the landscape around Bairnsdale in the late-18th century. D. R Long (Daniel Rutter), between 1856 and 1883.
State Library of Victoria

Stephen Morey, La Trobe University and Jason Gibson, Deakin University

In 1846 Melbourne was gripped by a panic: a story had spread that a white woman had been shipwrecked off the coast of Gippsland and was living with Aboriginal people. “Expeditions” were sent to “rescue” her. Messages were left for her printed on handkerchiefs, and because some believed she was Scottish, some of these were written in Gaelic.

The expeditions sent to Gippsland resulted in the massacre of large numbers of Indigenous people from the Gunai/Kurnai community.

For generations, people have argued over whether the “white woman” really existed and if so, what happened to her. In her 2001 book The Captive White Woman of Gipps Land author Julie Carr recounted a story written in 1897 by Mary Howitt, the daughter of A.W. Howitt, an anthropologist and Gippsland magistrate, which told how the white woman later had children with an Aboriginal husband and drowned in McLennan’s strait. Carr came to the conclusion that evidence for the existence of the woman was inconclusive; government searches in 1846 and 1847 having failed to find her.

But we have recently identified two short songs in the Aboriginal language of Gippsland (Gunai/Kurnai) about the white woman’s story that provide some clues. These were in the papers of Howitt at the State Library of Victoria.

A handkerchief for the white woman shipwrecked in Gippsland.

A gift of possum skin

At the top of one page of Howitt’s notes headed August 23 1868, per J.C. Macleod (the son of an early pastoralist), Howitt wrote the following note:

Blacks told him [Macleod] in the early days the white woman was wrecked in the coast with some men who were killed – the woman being saved. She was a tall woman, young with very long black hair in ringlets (some said the hair was fair). … She was the Miss Howard who was about 16 years of age when the vessel in which she was going to Melbourne was lost. Daughter of Commissary Howard. Part of the vessel was after picked up in the ninety mile beach

Two Gunai/Kurnai songs are written on the same page. Howitt notes that these songs were composed by a “Dinni Birraark”, a senior songster and ritual specialist, where dinni is the word for “old” and the birraark is the name of an expert who was skilled in songs and magic. These men were said to fly and see beyond the physical world.

In the 1840s there were seven surviving men who held the title of Dinni Birraark. The composer of this song was likely to have been a man also known as Bunjil Bamarang from near Bairnsdale. Bunjil Bamarang was not his personal name, but indicated that he was an expert (Bunjil) in something. We do not know what Bamarang refers to, but it may indicate expertise in the use of the “spear shield”, which was called bammarook in Gunai/Kurnai.

One of these songs, written down by Howitt, directly mentions the “white woman”:


State Library of Victoria

We have transcribed this as:

U-auda kai-ū Lohan-tŭkan móka kat-teir nŭ́rrau-un-gŭl mūndū wánganna

Underneath the song, Howitt gives translations for many of the words. For instance, he translates Lohan-tŭkan as “white woman”. The overall meaning of the song seems to be, “Give the white woman from over the sea the possum skin skirt, and that blanket there.”

This genre of song, gunyeru, was traditionally sung with dancing at public gatherings, what might be otherwise commonly referred to as a “corroboree” (although the word “corroboree” originates from the Dharuk language spoken in the Sydney area). The Dinni Birraark was certainly an acknowledged expert in composing this style of song.

Burning ladders

On the same page, is a second song that seems to give more information about the Lohan-Tuka, or white woman’s, story:


State Library of Victoria

This we have transcribed as:

Blaung-a-requa drūraua kŭllŭngŭka

Wŭrūng-tūnkū bŭdda-tūnkū pŭtta-ngaiu

tūka-pŭnta kŭrnŭng-ŭka ma-kŭrnung-ita

In the first line of the song there are three words that Howitt translates as “burn”, “ladder” and “whitefellow”. This would appear to be a sentence meaning, “The whitefellow’s ladder is burning”.

When we remember that ships in the 1840s were sailing ships, we can imagine that the Dinni Birraark used a word that he knew – “ladder” – to represent the rigging on a sailing ship. As Gunai/Kurnai elder, Russell Mullett, pointed out to us, “As a senior man, the Dinni Birraark would have used a ladder in his ritual life.”

The remaining portions of this second song are harder to interpret. It seems that the Dinni Birraark was watching the burning of this ship from the narrow strip of land along the Ninety Mile Beach between the sea and the freshwater of the Gippsland Lakes.

In this place, perhaps a musk duck (Tuka) had a nest, there was a hollow place near to water. Intriguingly the word for white woman, Lohan Tuka, is a compound including the word for musk duck. Perhaps, as Mullett has suggested, the place where the Dinni Birraark watched this had an association with an ancestral musk duck.

The message printed on handkerchiefs in a bid to find the shipwrecked white woman.

These songs are composed as if witnessing real events: the wreck of a ship and the rescue of a young woman. Nothing is more naturally human than offering a young shipwreck victim a “skirt and a blanket”, and the description of the shipwreck as a “burning ladder” is fully plausible.

These two songs seem to suggest that there was a White Woman, the Lohan Tuka. There is much tragedy in this story – shipwreck, massacre, possible drowning. This history needs to be told and re-told.

What these songs reveal is an Indigenous perspective on it and a glimpse into the rich artistic culture of the Gunai/Kurnai. In the words of Mullett, “taken together these two songs are like an opera composed by the Dinni Birraark”.The Conversation

Stephen Morey, Senior Lecturer, Department of Languages and Linguistics, La Trobe University and Jason Gibson, Research fellow, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Ancient stone tools found on Sulawesi, but who made them remains a mystery



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Limestone ‘tower’ karst region of Maros in the south of Sulawesi, where Leang Burung 2 is located.
D.P. McGahan , Author provided

Adam Brumm, Griffith University

Another collection of stone tools dating back more than 50,000 years has been unearthed on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Details of the find, at a rock-shelter known as Leang Burung 2, are described in our paper out today in PLOS ONE.

But we uncovered no human fossils, so the identity of these tool-makers remains a mystery.

In 2016 we reported the discovery of similar findings dating to 200,000 years ago on Sulawesi, and we also have no idea who made them.

The earliest Sulawesi tools are so old that they could belong to one of several human species. Candidates include Homo erectus and Homo floresiensis, the dwarf-like “Hobbits” of Flores.




Read more:
World’s scientists turn to Asia and Australia to rewrite human history


Alternatively, they might have been Denisovans, distant cousins of Neanderthals who met early Aboriginal people in Southeast Asia, leaving a genetic legacy in their descendants.

They may even have been Homo sapiens that had ventured out of Africa long before the main exodus of our species.

Or they could be a totally unknown species.

Where did they go?

Not only do we not know who the first inhabitants of Sulawesi were, we have no idea what happened to them.

By 40,000 years ago people were creating rock art on Sulawesi. Given the sophistication of these artworks, their makers were surely Homo sapiens with modern minds like ours.

If the first islanders were a now-extinct group, did they linger long enough to encounter modern cultures?

Sulawesi also holds great promise for understanding the initial peopling of our land.

This large island on the route to Australia might have been the launch pad to these shores up to 65,000 years ago. It could even be where the First Australians met Denisovans.

How our region looked during the Ice Age. Lower sea levels bridged the ocean barrier now separating Australia from New Guinea and joined up numerous islands in Southeast Asia to each other and to the adjacent mainland, with the exception of islands in Wallacea, which have always remained separate. The arrows show how the ancestors of Aboriginal people may have got to Australia up to 65,000 years ago.
Adam Brumm, Author provided

Resolving this mystery is not easy on a huge landmass like Sulawesi. Where do you begin to look? Which brings us to Leang Burung 2.

The original dig

Leang Burung 2 is a limestone rock-shelter in the island’s south. It was first excavated in 1975 by archaeologist Ian Glover.

Sulawesi, showing the location of Leang Burung 2 rock-shelter.
ESRI (right map), Author provided

Glover dug to a depth of 3.6m, uncovering “Ice Age” artefacts dating back 30,000 years. He also found, at the bottom of his trench, a layer of yellow clay containing simpler stone tools and fossils of large mammals (megafauna) that were rare to absent in overlying (that is, younger) “Ice Age” levels.

But before Glover could explore these hallmarks of earlier habitation he had to shut down the dig – large rocks in the trench had made further progress untenable.

Decades later, the late Mike Morwood, of “Hobbit” fame, resolved to extend Glover’s trench to bedrock. He had a hunch that below the undated clay might be evidence that archaic humans existed on Sulawesi until relatively recent times. In fact, Mike thought the ancestors of the “Hobbits” might have come from this island to the north of Flores.

In 2007 Mike’s team (led by Makassan archaeologist Irfan Mahmud) deepened the trench to 4.5m, but the dig was once again halted by rocks.

A new dig and deeper

Later, at Mike’s invitation, and with colleagues from Indonesia’s National Research Centre for Archaeology (ARKENAS), I reopened the trenches in an effort to finally get to the bottom of things.

Indonesian archaeologists at work in Leang Burung 2.
Adam Brumm, Author provided

Over three seasons (2011-13) we excavated to a depth of 6.2m – deeper than ever before. It was a trying dig, requiring the use of heavy-duty shoring to support the unstable walls and specialist drilling equipment to remove huge rocks that had hindered prior work at this site.

Instead of reaching bedrock, we hit groundwater. With water seeping in, our dig was done.

Deep-trench excavation at Leang Burung 2 in 2012.
Adam Brumm, Author provided

Nevertheless, we can confirm that beneath an upper disturbed zone there is indeed evidence of an early human presence, having exposed a rich cultural horizon in a brown clay deep below Glover’s yellow clay.

Among the findings are large, rudimentary stone tools and megafauna fossils. We also turned up a fossil from an extinct elephant, the first known from the site.

Fossil tooth fragment from an extinct elephant, excavated from Leang Burung 2.
M W Moore, Author provided

Dating the new find

We are fortunate to have dating methods that were unavailable in Glover’s day, but the age of the lowermost layers has still proved tricky to nail down.

Our best efforts suggest that the top of Glover’s clay is over 35,000 years old, while the brown clay is about 50,000 years old – and we still have not bottomed out.

The early inhabitants used tools like those made 200,000 years ago on Sulawesi, so the deepest artefacts may be connected to the island’s oldest tool-making culture.

Stone artefacts from the deep deposits at Leang Burung 2, dated to at least 50,000 years ago.
M W Moore, Author provided

These cave dwellers could still have been around when the first rock art appears 40,000 years ago, but owing to dating uncertainties and the erosion of a large amount of sediment from Leang Burung 2, we can’t be sure.




Read more:
Ice age art and ‘jewellery’ found in an Indonesian cave reveal an ancient symbolic culture


Leang Burung 2 rock-shelter.
Adam Brumm, Author provided

A new hope

Digging deeper at Leang Burung 2 is possible but it will require serious effort, including artificially lowering the water table. But while research at this shelter has been challenging, it has led us to another site with better prospects.

Our excavations at nearby Leang Bulu Bettue have unearthed rare “Ice Age” ornaments up to 30,000 years old, and we have now reached deeper and older levels.

The ConversationFurther work at this cave may yield vital clues about the original inhabitants of Sulawesi, including, we hope, the first fossil remains of these enigmatic people.

Adam Brumm, ARC Future Fellow, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The mystery of the La Pérouse expedition survivors: wrecked in Torres Strait?



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Louis XVI giving final instructions to the Comte de La Perouse in 1785, before La Perouse embarked on his fateful expedition to the Southern Hemisphere.
State Library of NSW

Garrick Hitchcock, Australian National University

The final fate of the expedition led by Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, has been a mystery ever since the frigates L’Astrolabe and La Boussole sailed out of Botany Bay in March 1788, vanishing, it seemed, into the vastness of the Pacific.

The expedition left the French port of Brest in 1785. The two vessels, with a complement of 225 officers, crew and scientists, were crammed with supplies and trade goods for a four-year long Pacific voyage that sought to emulate the feats of discovery of Captain James Cook. King Louis XVI took a personal interest in the undertaking and helped draft the plans and itinerary.


Read more: When it comes to disappearing ocean history, HMAS Perth is the tip of the iceberg


La Pérouse also had orders to investigate the new British colony in Australia. He arrived off Botany Bay, New South Wales in January 1788 to see Arthur Philip’s First Fleet at anchor, and so witnessed the beginning of European settlement of the continent. For six weeks the French camped on the northern shores of the Bay: the area now home to the south-eastern Sydney suburb bearing his name.

Portrait of Comte de La Perouse, circa 1792.
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Before departing Australia to continue his voyage, La Pérouse left letters with the British for forwarding to the French Naval Ministry. In them he detailed how he planned to leave the Pacific Ocean via Torres Strait, the narrow waterway separating Australia and New Guinea, and be back in France by June 1789. Concern mounted when they did not arrive as expected. In 1791 the French National Assembly commissioned an expedition to search for the overdue navigator, without success. It is said that King Louis XVI, on his way to the guillotine in 1793, enquired of his captors “Is there news of La Pérouse?”

A dogged Irish captain finally solved the puzzle almost four decades later. In 1826 Peter Dillon saw European objects at Tikopia in the Solomon Islands, which locals told him came from a nearby island called Vanikoro. He suspected they were from La Pérouse’s ships. Eventually, he was given command of the survey vessel Research and arrived at Vanikoro in 1827, going on to learn the awful fate of L’Astrolabe and La Boussole: both frigates had smashed against the island’s fringing reef during a storm. Artefacts collected by Dillon were taken to Paris where they were identified as belonging to the expedition vessels.

The Vanikoro Islanders also related how survivors from Le Pérouse’s ships had spent several months constructing a small two-masted schooner, using timber salvaged from wreckage and hewn from the island’s dense forests. Once completed, they launched the vessel and sailed away.

What became of this vessel and its crew, desperate to return to France, has been an ongoing mystery. Subsequent books and articles about La Pérouse have asked the same questions: did the vessel even make it out of the Vanikoro lagoon, or was it attacked by locals in canoes? If it did get away, did it founder and sink beneath the waves? Or did the survivors die of thirst or starvation at sea? Or did they again suffer shipwreck elsewhere in the Pacific?


Read more: Transit of Venus: a tale of two expeditions


An Indian newspaper article from 1818 can perhaps shed light on the fate of the Vanikoro escape vessel. The December 1818 issue of The Madras Courier related how, in September that year, the ships Claudine and Mary, bound for Calcutta from Sydney, anchored off Murray Island in the Torres Strait Islands. There they rescued a castaway Indian seaman, Shaik Jumaul, who had survived the sinking of the merchant ship Morning Star four years earlier off the north Queensland coast.

On board the Mary, Shaik Jumaul was interviewed about his experiences on the island. He reported that he had seen swords and muskets on the islands, “differently made from English”, as well as a compass and a gold watch. When he asked the Islanders where they had obtained these things, an old man explained how thirty years earlier a ship was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, within sight of Murray Island. White men had come from her in boats, but in the fighting that followed all were killed except a boy, who was spared and brought up as one of their own.

Western part of Mer (Murray Island) and the neighbouring islands of Waier (L) and Dauar ®, 1 December 2016.
Garrick Hitchcock

The expedition crew list includes a ship’s boy, François Mordelle, from the port town of Tréguier in Brittany, northwestern France. Could this be last survivor of the La Pérouse expedition?

The article featuring the castaway’s account was reproduced in several other newspapers of the day, in Australia, Britain, France and other countries, and observers noted that this might refer to the La Pérouse expedition. Somehow, Shaik Jamaul’s story was largely forgotten in subsequent years.

The chronology fits nicely, for it was 30 years earlier, in late 1788 or early 1789, that the La Pérouse survivors departed Vanikoro in their small vessel. Furthermore, historians are not aware of any other European ship in the region at that time.

Torres Strait, which includes the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, is studded with reefs, rocks and sandbars. It has been described as a “graveyard of ships”, as over 120 vessels are known to have come to grief in its treacherous waters. The vessel reported by Shaik Jumaul is the earliest known shipwreck in the Strait and indeed, eastern Australia.

Could it be that the final phase of the La Pérouse expedition ended in tragedy in northern Australia? Future recovery of artefacts from the wreck site on the Great Barrier Reef – yet to be discovered – or the islands, will hopefully provide final confirmation.

One La Pérouse mystery, however, will likely remain unsolved.

The Murray Islanders showed Shaik Jamaul the young castaway’s clothing, and cried as they recalled how he, together with two young girls, left the island one night in a canoe. His island friends searched for them, but they were never seen again. Was he seeking to return to France? Did he suffer an accident at sea? Or was he shipwrecked elsewhere a third and final time?

The ConversationA last crewman, a survivor, a castaway. Though his identity and fate are unknown, he is not lost to memory.

Garrick Hitchcock, Honorary Senior Lecturer, School of Culture, History and Language, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Solved: the mystery of Britain’s Bronze Age mummies


Tom Booth, Natural History Museum

Whenever mummies are mentioned, our imaginations stray to the dusty tombs and gilded relics of ancient Egyptian burial sites. With their eerily lifelike repose, the preserved bodies of ancient Pharaohs like Hatshepsut and Tutankhamen stir our imaginations and stoke our interest in people and cultures which have long since passed away.

But the Ancient Egyptians weren’t the only ones to mummify their dead. As it happens, mummies dating back to the Bronze Age – between 4,200 and 2,700 years ago – have also been discovered in Britain. But until recently, we knew very little about how mummification was practised by ancient British societies, or to what extent. I devoted my PhD to finding out how peat bogs and bacteria affect the body after death, and helped to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding Britain’s Bronze Age mummies.

I first learnt that mummification may have been practised in Britain back in 2008, while a student at the University of Sheffield. Mike Parker Pearson gave a lecture on the evidence for mummification, based on skeletons he’d excavated at the site of Cladh Hallan on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides.

Mummy bundles

Several lines of evidence came together to suggest, rather controversially, that these skeletons had once been purposefully mummified. The tightly-flexed positions of skeletons were like Peruvian mummy bundles, and two teeth, part of the wrist and the knee of one of the Cladh Hallan skeletons, had been removed long after they had died, which suggested that the bodies had been curated for an extended length of time.

A mummified Peruvian male, who was buried in a bundle.
Wellcome Images/Wikimedia, CC BY

The radiocarbon dates from one of the skeletons were older than the dates obtained from the sediments at the burial sites. This suggested that the bodies may have been buried centuries after they had died. A thorough physical examination, together with DNA analysis, showed that both skeletons had actually been constructed from the mummified parts of several individuals.

Of course, based on this evidence alone, it was possible that these mummies were outliers. Mummification could well have been a fringe practice, carried out by people living on the peripheries of Britain’s Bronze Age societies.

The problem is that the same evidence from Cladh Hallan might not necessarily be found at all sites where mummification was practised. Radiocarbon dates would not always have the precision needed to identify significant delays between a person’s death and their burial. And there was no guarantee that the extensive meddling with mummified body parts identified at Cladh Hallan was practised elsewhere.

So, it was my challenge to identify whether remains from other sites might once have been mummies, too. And I was going to have to get my hands dirty.

Microscopic death tunnels

After we die, our gut bacteria circulate around our body through our blood vessels and begin to decompose our soft tissues. These bacteria also get into our bones and begin to eat away at the proteins, producing microscopic tunnels. Most of the bones from bodies that have been buried in the ground soon after death are filled with these tunnels, because the skeleton is essentially trapped in an enclosed environment with destructive bacteria.

Little or no tunnelling was observed within the skeletons from Cladh Hallan, suggesting that their putrefaction had been interrupted. Methods of mummification usually involve killing or removing gut bacteria soon after a person dies, in order to prevent this process. So studying the extent of bacterial attack inside bones was potentially a new way of identifying skeletons which had previously been mummies.

Bacterial tunnelling in a femur from Cladh Hallan.
Tom Booth, Author provided

To test this theory, I examined the bone microstructure of two bona fide mummies. Both skeletons showed little or no bacterial attack, confirming that this pattern was consistent with mummification.

I then looked at bacterial tunnelling in the bones of over 300 British archaeological skeletons dating to various periods. As expected, almost all bones from most periods were filled with bacterial tunnels. But around half of the samples that dated back to the Bronze Age showed little or no sign of bacterial tunnelling.

The Bronze Age skeletons which bore this signature came from sites located all over Britain, stretching from north-west Scotland to south-east England. This was the first evidence that mummification was practised all over Bronze Age Britain.

Burned or buried?

Some of these skeletons even hinted at the processes that Bronze Age people may have used to mummify their dead. The Cladh Hallan bones looked like they had been eroded by acid. Yet they were buried in alkaline shell sand. The nearest acidic environments to Cladh Hallan during the Bronze Age would have been a series of peat bogs – so, these bodies were probably preserved by being buried in a peat bog for a few months.

In contrast, Bronze Age mummies from Kent were discoloured in a way which suggested that they had been burnt. So they may have been preserved by being smoked over a fire.

It is impossible to say for sure exactly why Bronze Age Britons mummified some of their dead. The evidence suggests that Bronze Age people kept their mummies above ground for a number of years, or even decades: quite the opposite to the practices of Ancient Egypt, where mummified bodies were locked away in a tomb.

Both ancient and present societies which keep their mummified dead close tend to view them as being alive, in some sense. In some ancient cultures – like the Aztecs – the bodies were used to communicate with ancestors in the afterlife. Even today, human remains are innately powerful objects, which can be leveraged for political or social purposes – one modern example is Lenin’s mummified remains.

We might even reasonably guess that Bronze Age people used the mummies of their ancestors to exert rights over land, resources and power. The next step will be to examine whether mummification was practised even further afield – perhaps in mainland Europe.

The Conversation

Tom Booth, Wellcome Post-Doctoral Research Associate, Natural History Museum

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


USA: Amelia Earhart Mystery


The link below is to an article that considers the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance.

For more visit:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3103327/Mystery-Amelia-Earhart-s-disappearance-soon-solved-Metal-analysis-prove-landed-Marshall-Islands.html


Article: The Mystery of Ludwig Leichhardt


The link below is to an article that looks at what happened to Australian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2013/may/31/what-really-happened-ludwig-leichhardt


Article: Mystery of the Star Dust


The link below is to an article that reports on the mystery of the disappearance of the Star Dust in 1947, a British South American Airways airliner.

For more visit:
http://sometimes-interesting.com/2012/09/17/what-happened-to-the-star-dust/


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