Sunday, February 6, 2022

The Asian Century was underway long before the British arrived

We are all used to being astounded as we see growing evidence of how widespread contact and trade was across the breadth of the ancient European world and with worlds far beyond. The Romans and the Vikings and many after them all roamed far and wide. This is the stuff of a hundred television documentaries that show just how interconnected the ancient world was. Connection, not isolation, has always been the norm. Seaways were bridges, not barriers – a way to bring people together, not divide them. Now important archaeological work confirms just how widespread that cross-cultural, international network was across the whole of Northern Australia, long before the British arrived.

For many years I worked in the Australian Government programs which supported the efforts by local communities across Australia to revive or keep thriving their First Nations languages and culture. As part of this I travelled to East Arnhem Land on several occasions to attend the long-running annual Garma Festival and visit the well-respected Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala. One of the first things that strikes you in East Arnhem Land is that you are far closer to Indonesia and Timor than you are to Perth or Sydney or Melbourne – or Tasmania, my original island home.

Ancient traditions of Aboriginal ceramics have contemporary equivalents. Ceramic pots by artist Tjimpuna Williams, Ernabella Arts Centre, in a DESIGN Canberra pop up mini exhibition, 2015. In a perfect example of cross-cultural and cross-national collaboration, the ceramics were created during a residency in Jingdezhen, China, in early 2015, with long-time Craft ACT member, Janet deBoos.

At the time the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, where I worked, was developing its important White Paper strategy, ‘Australia in the Asian Century’, under the leadership of Ken Henry. There’s no question it was an important marker for the future of Australia. This was when the first hints of what the Asian Century meant really began to appear. In East Arnhem Land I had heard about the close and long-running and amicable connections between the Macassans and the Yolngu people.

The Asian Century began long before our time
I became fascinated by discovering that the Asian Century had in fact commenced long before the British arrived. Much earlier than Cook, local Yolgnu communities in Northern Australia had formed long-running trade and cultural partnerships with the neighbouring Macassans from Sulawesi in what is now Indonesia. This was built on commerce but developed into far more. We might talk about the importance of the Asian Century but the Yolngu were already partnering with Asia long before Australia even existed.

In Darwin at the Indigenous Music Awards in Darwin (in 2013, I think), I saw a commemoration of the life of George Rrurrambu (also called George Burarrwanga), lead singer of the famed Aboriginal band, the Warumpi Band. Dancers appeared on stage and proceeded to perform a dance unlike anything I had seen by Aboriginal performers anywhere else in the country. They were dressed in yellow – one of the clan colours of the Yolngu that derived from the Macassans ­– and as they danced in a slow and stately procession they repeatedly clashed great blades like machetes together. 

‘I became fascinated by discovering that the Asian Century had in fact commenced long before the British arrived. Much earlier than Cook, local Yolgnu communities in Northern Australia had formed long-running trade and cultural partnerships with the neighbouring Macassans from Sulawesi in what is now Indonesia.’

This ancient connection across waterways and cultures is brought to life in a brilliant duet of ‘Bayini’, a song about a Macassan spirit, with Macassan singer Tutty and the great Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (whose family has Macassan links), late in 2014 at the Makassar Jazz Festival.

This sense of being closer to an outward-looking Asia than we realise is underlined by the story of the Chinese admiral Zheng He, who according to Wikipedia was a ‘Chinese mariner, explorer, diplomat [and] fleet admiral…during China's early Ming dynasty. Originally born in a Muslim family, he commanded expeditionary voyages to Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Western Asia, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433. According to legend, his larger ships carried hundreds of sailors on four decks and were almost twice as long as any wooden ship ever recorded.’

Connection not isolation

We are all used to being astounded as we see growing evidence of how widespread contact and trade was across the breadth of the ancient European, North African, Middle Eastern and Asian world. The Romans and the Vikings and many after them all roamed far and wide. This is the stuff of a hundred television documentaries that show just how interconnected the ancient world was. Connection, not isolation, has always been the norm. In Scotland I was taken by the way in which seaways were bridges, not barriers – a way to bring people together, not divide them. One ancient kingdom on the West Coast of Scotland spanned Scotland and Northern Ireland, both the separated parts of the land held together by sea.

‘Nowadays the axis of the world has tilted and rather than looking to Europe we are hunkering down in the region we physically occupy. Our minds have followed our geography and turned to Asia and the great azure expanses of the Pacific – and mapped their connections to our own continent.’

Nowadays the axis of the world has tilted and rather than looking to Europe we are hunkering down in the region we physically occupy. Our minds have followed our geography and turned to Asia and the great azure expanses of the Pacific – and mapped their connections to our own continent. The Polynesians were consummate navigators of this immense ocean. They traversed the vast reaches of the Pacific before settling in Tahiti, so deep into the Pacific that it is only on the edges of all known maps. It is a wonder that any European seafarers ever found it. Coming to Tahiti you could imagine yourself – as did the mariners of old – falling off the edge of the world.

Now important archaeological work has been reported that confirms just how widespread that cross-cultural, international network was across the whole of Northern Australia, long before the British arrived. Previously pottery had been discovered in New Guinea and the Torres Strait. However, was was completely unexpected was a find on on Lizard Island, much further South along the Queensland coast.

Serious game changer
The unexpected shards of pottery were discovered in 2017 by archaeologist Sean Ulm, deputy director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, and anthropological archaeologist Ian McNiven, who also works with the Centre. As McNiven pointed out, ‘What was unexpected is finding similar pottery, of similar age…[to that in New Guinea and the Torres Strait]…on Lizard Island. It is 600 kilometres down the Queensland coast and that makes you say hang on, this is a serious game changer.’ As McNiven comments about finding the tiny shards of pottery from a metre underground, ‘Literally, a little tiny piece like that changes the way we view the history of our continent and its interactions in the past, the Indigenous peoples with the outside world.

The evidence suggests that it was not only goods that were exchanged, but also the knowledge of pottery-making. The Lizard Island pottery seems to have been made locally – all the minerals in the pottery are similar to those in the surrounding area. In the article in the Sydney Morning Herald about the work of the archaeologists, Mike Foley, paraphrasing McNiven, notes that ‘It appears pottery was traded into the Torres Strait from New Guinea 3,000 years ago, and some was produced locally’.

‘The evidence suggests that it was not only goods that were exchanged, but also the knowledge of pottery-making. The Lizard Island pottery seems to have been made locally – all the minerals in the pottery are similar to those in the surrounding area.’

This history is not widely known. As the report in the Sydney Morning Herald notes, ‘Despite the cultural heritage of traditional owners along the coastline of Cape York, it is not well known that Aboriginal people had been sailing acros the Coral Sea for thousands of years to trade.’ The work underpins a new exhibition, ‘Connections across the Coral Sea’, at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville, which will then travel to Brisbane in June 2022. The exhibition has been develped in partnership with the Walmbaar Aboriginal Corporation and the Hope Vale Congress Aboriginal Corporation.

Rewriting history and upturning long-held truths

What I find fascinating is the extent to which this kind of research rewrites history and upturns our established paradigms and mindsets and long-held truths. It’s always fascinating to discover later in life that something you have believed from childhood is completely untrue. In my own world this includes the belief – at the minor end of the scale – that you should never go swimming for an hour after eating, to the view – at the other end of the scale – that there were no surviving Tasmanian Aboriginal people. As a child growing up in Tasmania, you wouldn’t have known that Tasmanian Aboriginal communities still existed. Discovering this many decades later was like seeing a whole extra dimension of Australia – suddenly seeing black and white photos in colour.

‘What I find fascinating is the extent to which this kind of research rewrites history and upturns our established paradigms and mindsets and long-held truths. It’s always fascinating to discover later in life that something you have believed from childhood is completely untrue.’

The archaeologists who unearthed the ancient pottery commented that when they first published their findings in 2011, they were met with skepticism, but now ten years later, no-one disputes their conclusions. In the past there had been a view that unlike every other society, Aboriginal communities lost their seafaring traditions once they arrived in Australia and were unconnected to the rest of the world. It was also considered that Australia was the only continent on the planet that didn’t have a tradition of pottery. It would be surprising if this was true and increasingly the evidence proves otherwise.

Watercraft technology and seagoing technology

Professor McNiven points out that the Gulf of Carpentaria was linked to Adelaide and Broome was linked to Alice Springs. As he says, ‘if you know what you’re doing you can cover a lot bigger distances in a boat than you can walking, carrying all your goods with you.’ As Professor Ulm points out these ancient peoples had ‘watercraft technology and seagoing technology’.

We underestimate our distant ancestors at our peril, whether in Europe or Australia. Perhaps like the ancient Yolngu people of East Arnhem Land encountering the sea-faring Macassan navigators and the seafarers who travelled so far down the Australian coast, sharing new products and new technologies, we need to encourage that part of ourselves that is excited by encountering and interacting with new cultures.

See also

Always was, always will be – a welcome long view in NAIDOC week
‘Being involved with Australian culture means being involved in one way or another with First Nations arts, culture and languages – it’s such a central and dynamic part of the cultural landscape. First Nations culture has significance for First Nations communities, but it also has powerful implications for Australian culture generally. NAIDOC Week is a central part of that cultural landscape’, Always was, always will be – a welcome long view in NAIDOC week. 
 
Updates on creativity and culture an email away
‘After many decades working across the Australian cultural sector, I have been regularly posting to my suite of blogs about creativity and culture, ever since I first set them up over 10 years ago. You can follow any of the blogs through email updates, which are sent from time to time. If you don’t already follow my blogs and you want to take advantage of this service, you can simply add your email address to the blog page, and then confirm that you want to receive updates when you receive the follow up email. If you want to make sure you don’t miss any of my updates, simply select the blogs you are interested in and set up the update by adding your email’, Updates on creativity and culture an email away.  
 
‘indefinite article’ on Facebook – short arts updates and commentary
‘Short arts updates and irreverent cultural commentary about contemporary Australian society, popular culture, the creative economy and the digital and online world – life in the trenches and on the beaches of the information age’, 'indefinite article' on Facebook.

An everyday life worth living – indefinite articles for a clean, clever and creative future
‘My blog “indefinite article” is irreverent writing about contemporary Australian society, popular culture, the creative economy and the digital and online world – life in the trenches and on the beaches of the information age. Over the last ten years I have published 166 articles about creativity and culture on the blog. This is a list of all the articles I have published there, broken down into categories, with a brief summary of each article. They range from the national cultural landscape to popular culture, from artists and arts organisations to cultural institutions, cultural policy and arts funding, the cultural economy and creative industries, First Nations culture, cultural diversity, cities and regions, Australia society, government, Canberra and international issues – the whole range of contemporary Australian creativity and culture’, An everyday life worth living – indefinite articles for a clean, clever and creative future

Beyond a joke – surviving troubled times
‘We live in troubled times – but then can anyone ever say that they lived in times that weren’t troubled? For most of my life Australia has suffered mediocre politicians and politics – with the odd brief exceptions – and it seems our current times are no different. Australia has never really managed to realise its potential. As a nation it seems to be two different countries going in opposite directions – one into the future and the other into the past. It looks as though we’ll be mired in this latest stretch of mediocrity for some time and the only consolation will be creativity, gardening and humour’, Beyond a joke – surviving troubled times

Contemporary Indigenous fashion – where community culture and economics meet
‘The recent exhibition 'Piinpi', about contemporary Indigenous fashion, has a significance for Australian culture that is yet to be fully revealed. The themes covered by the exhibition are important because they demonstrate the intersection of the culture of First Nations communities with creative industries and the cultural economy. In attempting to address the major issue of Indigenous disadvantage, for example, it is critical to recognise that one of the most important economic resources possessed by First Nations communities is their culture. Through the intellectual property that translates it into a form that can generate income in a contemporary economy, that culture is pivotal to jobs and to income. It may not be mining but it mines a far richer seam – authentic and rich content that has already been recognised internationally for its high value, just like our iron and coal. At a time when First Nations communities are talking increasingly about gaining greater control over their economic life, this is highly relevant’, Contemporary Indigenous fashion – where community culture and economics meet.

After a fashion – creative industries from First Nations culture
‘When I first heard that Victorian regional gallery, Bendigo Art Gallery, was planning an exhibition about contemporary Indigenous fashion I was impressed. The Gallery has had a long history of fashion exhibitions, drawing on its own collection and in partnership with other institutions, notably the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is fascinating to consider how a leading regional Australian museum and an internationally renowned museum on the global stage, while in many ways so different, have so much in common. The exhibition is far more than a single event in a Victorian regional centre – it is an expression of a much broader contemporary Indigenous fashion phenomenon nation-wide. It hints at the potential of the creative economy and creative industries to build stronger communities. Both the economic importance and the community and social importance of creativity and culture are tightly interlinked because of the way in which creativity and culture are integral to everyday life and the essential activities that make it up’, After a fashion – creative industries from First Nations culture.

Out of sight, out of mind – building knowledge on sustaining the creative and cultural sector in regional and remote Australia
‘Creative organisations and artists often collect information and research in order to report to funding bodies about how grant funding has been used. Apart from the need to report on funding or to make a case to government, or society in general, the creative and cultural sector also needs evidence and understanding for its own purposes. While government funding bodies might need the sort of information collected from funded organisations, the organisations need it far more – for their planning and to report to their Boards and their communities. They need it to know whether what they are doing is effective and worthwhile – or whether they should be doing something else.’ Out of sight, out of mind – building knowledge on sustaining the creative and cultural sector in regional and remote Australia.
 
Growing up across many worlds – the daily life of ‘In My Blood it Runs’
‘An important new film about Dujuan, a young Aboriginal boy living in Alice Springs in the centre of Australia, is both engaging and challenging, raising major issues about growing up Aboriginal in modern Australia. ‘In my blood it runs’ is a film for our troubled times, that tackles the challenges of a culturally divided country, but also finds the hope that this cultural diversity can offer us all for our overlapping futures’, Growing up across many worlds – the daily life of ‘In My Blood it Runs’.
 
Changing the landscape of the future – a new focus on cultural rights
‘The arts and culture sector has spent far too many years pressing the case for why Australian culture is crucial to Australia’s future, without seeming to shift the public policy landscape to any great degree. Perhaps a proposed fresh approach focusing on cultural rights may offer some hope of a breakthrough. What makes this approach so important and so potentially productive is that it starts with broad principles, linked to fundamental issues, such as human rights, which makes it a perfect foundation for the development of sound and well-thought out policies – something that currently we sadly lack’, Changing the landscape of the future – a new focus on cultural rights.
 
Songlines – an ancient culture for a contemporary world
‘What interests me in exhibitions about Aboriginal Australia is what they mean for Australians generally, even if most Australians won’t ever see them. After a mere 220 years, in many ways we are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to navigate this land properly. When I was at school we learned about so many doomed explorers misinterpreting the country, unable to find their way. Burke and Wills were the perfect examples, undone because they were unable to learn simple lessons offered by the local people on how to make edible the vast supplies of food surrounding them. They starved to death in a field of plenty. It made me realise that we can gain a much richer grasp of Australia through recognising that First Nations culture and heritage is part and parcel of our own Australian heritage’, Songlines – an ancient culture for a contemporary world.

History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research
‘Cultural research has long term impacts in terms of our developing body of knowledge which stretch far into the future. Researchers are finding stories in our major cultural collections that were never envisaged by those originally assembling them – a process that will continue long into the future. The collections of our major cultural institutions are becoming increasingly accessible to the very people the collections are drawn from and reflect. In the process they are generating greater understanding about some of the major contemporary issues we face’, History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research.

The language of success ­– recognising a great unsung community movement
‘What is especially significant about the Prime Minister, in his Closing the Gap address, recognising the importance of Indigenous languages is that this is the first time a Liberal leader has expressed such views. It’s exciting because for progress to be made it is essential that there is a jointly agreed position. This moment arises from the tireless work over many decades of hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history. By their hard work they have managed to change the profile of Indigenous languages in Australia. Unfortunately the address reinforced the tendency of government to overlook the success stories that are already happening in local communities and look for big institutional solutions. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a missed opportunity’, The language of success – recognising a great unsung community movement.

Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’
‘A single exhibition can sum up many things. By bringing together so many histories, stories and objects – particularly long-absent ones from the British Museum – the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Museum presented a snapshot of the ongoing living history of Australia. Many strands ran through it, reflecting the complexity of the realities it tried to express. By successfully reflecting on the pressing issues it raised we have some hope of getting beyond the vision of the Great South Land of 18th and 19th Century ambition towards a truly great nation of the 21st Century’, Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’.

Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come
‘The inaugural Victorian Indigenous literary festival Blak & Bright in February 2016 was a a very important event for Australian cultural life. It aimed to promote and celebrate a diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. It raised important questions about how the movement to revive and maintain Indigenous languages – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history – is related to ‘Australian literature’. Australian culture as a whole is also inconceivable without the central role of Indigenous culture – how would Australian literature look seen in the same light?’, Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come.

When universes collide – ‘Encounters’ exhibition at National Museum of Australia
‘The Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, a once in a lifetime event, makes you realise that astoundingly all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that descendants of the Gweagal, those first people Cook encountered, still talk about that encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday. Despite the continuing concerns about the vast holdings of mostly looted cultural artefacts, the return of these objects, however briefly, will serve to emphasise how recently the British came to Australia, how much more we need to do to be fully at home in this country and how much part of a living, contemporary tradition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are’, When universes collide – Encounters exhibition at National Museum of Australia.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage,’ Valuing the intangible.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

Black diggers - telling war stories
‘If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. Black Diggers, “the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered” is a great Australian story. Why over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian’, Black diggers - telling war stories.

The gap in Closing the Gap
‘Experience of many years of the Indigenous culture programs shows that involvement in arts and cultural activity often has powerful flow on social and economic effects.’ The gap in Closing the Gap.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

Real jobs in an unreal world
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.' Real jobs in an unreal world.

Like a long-lost masterpiece
‘Many decades ago when I was much younger and a student I used to march in National Aboriginal Day Observance Committee marches. They were shorthanded to NADOC marches, back in the days when Islanders hadn’t yet been included and there was no ‘I’ in the name. I realised a while back that I must have been marching under the new Aboriginal flag at its birth. I had a poster from those years which I used to cart around with me from city to city until one day when I was about to move yet again I decided to donate it to the National Library of Australia’, Like a long-lost masterpiece.

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