Deep Time and Australian History: Tom Griffiths Continues Our Series on History and the Environment, Travelling into the Longue Duree of the Australian Past

Article excerpt

`IT IS EASY TO FORGET', writes archaeologist Donald Grayson, `that the antiquity of people on earth had to be discovered.' Yet that discovery took place only a little more than a century ago. Geologists uncovered and stared into the `dark abyss of time'. Did humans have a geological history? Had large animals become extinct, and if so, had they once been contemporary with people? Did deep time and social history overlap?

In the two hundred years following the European invasion of Australia in the late eighteenth century, the known age of the Earth increased from about 6,000 years to 4.6 billion, the antiquity of humans was discovered, Darwin's theory of the transmutation of species linked humans and other animals, and a hierarchical progression of cultural stages based on technological differences was sketched for human races.

Australia played a central role in this intellectual revolution. European scientists found that to explore Australian space was to plumb global time. To them, Australian indigenous peoples represented some of the earlier stages of humanity from which European civilisation had evolved. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century voyagers across space -- navigators and adventurers such as William Dampier (1652-1715), Abel Tasman (1603-59) and Nicholas Baudin (1754-1803) -- depicted Australia as `the last of lands', a phrase suggesting a continent both recent and primitive, recently colonised but by Stone Age peoples. It was not quite the `Great South Land' some had hoped for; it was the final, slightly disappointing piece of the global geographic jigsaw. In the wake of these voyagers, nineteenth-century time travellers such as Darwin, Lyell and Lamarck, and even more their followers, looked to the Antipodes as `the dawn of time', a reliquary of ancient secrets. The phrases -- `the last of lands' and `the dawn of time' -- were Australia's first time-place coordinates in world history. In the early 1900s, the Australian poet Bernard O'Dowd described his country as the `Last sea-thing dredged by Sailor Time from Space'.

But primitiveness did not necessarily denote antiquity and the European settlers of Australia denied Aboriginal people both modernity and antiquity, sandwiching them into a timeless, rootless nomadism that justified their dispossession. As recently as the 1930s, intelligent Australians were still arguing that Aboriginal people had occupied the continent for as little as a few hundred years. Stone-tool collectors who filled museums with truckloads of their finds felt no need to dig deeper for these treasures because they felt certain there was nothing to find below the surface of the soil. Humanity had no deep time in Australia; social history and geological history had no intersection here. Aboriginal people, it was believed, had not been in Australia long enough to have a stratigraphy.

The scientific discovery of human antiquity in Australia has therefore been an especially recent and dramatic event. It awaited the twin revolutions of professional archaeology and radiocarbon dating, both of which emerged in local practice in the 1950s and 60s. `No segment of the history of Homo sapiens', writes archaeologist John Mulvaney, `had been so escalated since Darwin took time off the Mosaic standard.' The 1960s were, in Mulvaney's words, the decade of `the deluge', `the golden years', `the Dreamtime' of Australian archaeology.

Mulvaney argued that finds at Kenniff Cave in Queensland demonstrated that humans had occupied the continent for at least 13,000 years, but new discoveries pushed this figure ever higher: to 20,000 years in 1965, over 30,000 by 1970; a probable 40,000 by 1980. Dates derived from thermoluminescence and optical luminescence have now extended the human occupation of Australia to 50-60,000 years before the present, although these figures are not universally accepted.

This dating revolution linked Australia to the Pleistocene era; the continent could no longer be seen as `the last of lands' colonised by humans. …