In this fascinating talk, Professor Bruce Pascoe interrogates the idea of Australian history pre-contact. Mary McLean from the Orange Aboriginal Land Council gives the Welcome to Country while Professor Stephen Gapps provides introductions. This event was recorded in Orange, Wiradjuri Country on the 28th October for the History Council of NSW's Annual History Lecture series.Support the show
Firstly, I would like to acknowledge Uncle Stan Grant Sr and Dr. John Rudder for the use of the Wiradjuri dictionary. Through their determination and hard work to restoring and preserving Wiradjuri language has now ensured that our language will not be lost. Sadly, Dr. John Rudder has crossed over to the Dreamtime, leaving a much valuable legacy behind, being the Wiradjuri dictionary and a lot more. The Wiradjuri people will be forever grateful to such a wonderful man. He will be forever remembered.
[Wiradjuri]. So what I have said. Good evening people, my name is Mary McLean. I'm a proud Wiradjuri woman from Orange [inaudible]. We, the Wiradjuri people, would like to welcome Bruce Pascoe to Wiradjuri country. We, the Wiradjuri people, also would like to say thank you to Bruce for the sharing of his knowledge this evening.
[Wiradjuri]. Ladies and gentlemen, young men and young women, my respects to Wiradjuri elders past and present. My respects are also to elders from other nations here today. Distinguished guests, I thank the organizers of this day for inviting me to attend here today, and asking me to speak to you all. Wiradjuri people welcome you all to Wiradjuri country. We are glad you all are here. Ladies and gentlemen, I welcome you all to Wiradjuri country. Thank you.
Sorry, just before I sit down. On behalf of the Orange Aboriginal Local Lands Council and [Wiradjuri] program, which is our language program, which I often teach language out there, I would just like to... We have a gift for Bruce.
Dr Stephen Gapps:
Mary, [Wiradjuri]. Thank you. Thanks so much for that welcome, and for your words. So, [Wiradjuri], everyone. Are you good? Before we begin, I'd also like to acknowledge and pay my respects to the Wiradjuri people, to traditional owners and custodians of the land, the water, the country in which we gather tonight. Lands that were taken from them without their consent and without treaty. I'd like to note that this land has also always been a learning space for Aboriginal people, and as we are all writers, we are all readers and practitioners of history, that's what brings us here tonight. I believe we can draw strength and guidance from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge, the oldest continuous knowledge system in the world.
So, [Wiradjuri], everyone here tonight. The Annual History Lecture is an event that has been produced and presented by the History Council of New South Wales every year since 1996. And I'm very proud to be able to say that this lecture tonight is the first time it's ever been given outside Sydney. Woo hoo.
Dr Stephen Gapps:
Incredible. I know. But the History Council of New South Wales, not Sydney, is now committed to keep up this momentum, and to keep our engagement with regional communities. We will hold the Annual History Lecture and other History Weeks events outside Sydney, and across the state, in future.
So the Annual History Lecture aims to engage and educate the wider community about the vitality, diversity, and the meaning of history and its practice. We do this each lecture through the eyes of a leading Australian historian. But not always an historian, and not always someone who might think of themselves as an historian. This year, our 2022 Annual History Lecture is being presented by someone whom, as they say, needs no introduction; Bruce Pascoe.
Bruce is a Tasmanian man with Yuin cultural law. Now, Bruce describes himself as a writer and a farmer, not an historian, but I'm sure he'll agree, and will talk about tonight, the role of the past, and will touch on just how we understand, or indeed misunderstand, the past today, as a critical part in understanding ourselves and our futures. The list of Bruce's achievements is long. Bruce has published 36, 36 books, including, as I'm sure you know, Dark Emu, first published in 2014. Not only did Dark Emu win the New South Wales Premier's award for literature in 2016, and Young Dark Emu several awards, Dark Emu, I think, has seismically changed Australians' understanding of Australia's First People's deep past.
In tonight's lecture, Bruce continues to provoke us into rethinking Australian history, and he will pose the question, what will change if we all have a better understanding of Australian history pre-contact? So, I'd like to thank Bruce so much for coming all the way from Gipsy Point in far east Gippsland, and ask you all to please join me in welcoming Bruce Pascoe to deliver the New South Wales History Council's Annual History Lecture for 2022. Thank you.
Prof Bruce Pascoe:
Thank you very much, Stephen. Thank you, Mary. I would like to acknowledge the country and the welcome allows me to be on that country. I'm Yuin Bunurong Tasmanian. I know a lot about my family, and I'm very proud of all of them. The Cornish, the Yuin, the Bunurong, the Tasmanian. Because I was so ignorant about my family, I was made, by older Aboriginal people, to go back to the library and prove that what they had told me about Australian history was correct. And in doing that, I learned an entirely different history to the one I'd learned at school and at university. An entirely different history.
Things are changing very rapidly in Australia, but we can't be satisfied just with change, it has to make a difference to all Australians, but particularly for Aboriginal people. We need to make sure that our young people know the true history of their country, and go to school and prosper. I don't want to see Aboriginal kids being sent away from school not being able to read and write. Those days are over. And Don's a school teacher, so it's up to him.
Prof Bruce Pascoe:
Prof Bruce Pascoe:
No pressure, no. Does the beauty of a flower exist without the eye of a witness? Does history exist without the witness of an historian? Three years ago, I was traveling by helicopter with an old man. He was wrestling with a map, and I was gazing through the window at the wonder of the desert. "Brother," I said. "You better look out the window." He looked down and stared. The pilot swung the aircraft to circle the point of our focus. "We don't have much time," the pilot said. "Fuel."
We were looking down on a stone arrangement of rock walls and interior spaces connected to each other. Maybe 30 of them. "Okay," said the pilot. "You got to go now, you blokes." As the aircraft swung around to complete its circle, we saw the ribbons of art stretching away to the west; lines of stone arrangements, circles, symbols, signs, and connecting to another cluster of 30 spaces.
"Never seen it before," said the old man. He was in shock. This was his country. He knew its stories, was the keeper of those stories. "What do you think it is?" I asked him, presuming he would know. "I don't know. What do you think?" He replied. "Houses?" I ventured. There was a gidgee tree growing nearby to give us perspective. The walls looked tall, the 30 individual spaces looked large, large enough to live in. We were silent all the way back to the nearest airport while the pilot clucked about fuel and lost time. When we got out of the chopper, the old man and I looked at each other, raising our eyebrows. This was big, bigger than both of us. A secret story of human endeavor.
Over a beer, we worked out a plan of how we could visit the site by car. "No archeologists," was the old man's final contribution. "No government. Just you and me." The pub was the kind where people contribute their worn-out hats, Akubras, the quintessential national uniform. Not one mention of Aboriginal culture in the pub's tourist paraphernalia, although a few of the photos included people I knew to be Aboriginal. Well, it's a very small town. You can't have a foot race, a flood rescue, or racing carnival without them, even if that's what you'd prefer.
In this ambience, two old Aboriginal men sip their beers and scribbled on beer mats, hatching a plan. Then came a bushfire, two bouts of COVID, and floods. But three years later, here we are, on the ground, walking by the walls we'd seen from the air, some as high as our shoulders. We found the lines of stone arrangements and their designs of circles and scrolls, and not one, but two other villages. Villages. The old man looked up and declared that there would have to be a well close by. He scanned the line of trees along the river bend. "Over there," he said. "It'll be over there."
We walked in the direction he'd indicated, and I reckon he was 30 meters out. There was the well. The river was beautiful, all the houses would've looked across this beautiful, serene tableau. It was set in a gibbous swale between old dunes, and the whole area had been marked by humans. There were artifacts scatters everywhere. Well, not everywhere, because they had been positioned aesthetically, like everything else in this charmed valley. But you could see where the old people had sat, the anvil they had used, and the beautiful array of chalcedony, silcrete, and chert chips that had sprayed out from their industry. I held a chard of chalcedony up to the light, and the sun beamed through a mauve and amber array. Whoever worked that stone must have gasped at times, to see the beauty they had manufactured. The warm beauty of that light. It made me wonder if, at times, they thought a blade too beautiful to use as a kitchen implement.
And I remember the bag one of our old fellas used to carry around everywhere. He forbade the kids to look into it. One disobeyed, apparently, but found a tiger snake in there. He never tried again. But there were crystals in that bag too. So precious, a snake was deployed as security guard. I mentioned the beauty of the stones to the old man as we had lunch in the shade of a coolabah tree. And my lip twitched at the irony of that description, the great Australian anthem of robbers, squatters, and coppers. Not much has changed.
Some months before, I had risked showing the aerial photograph I'd taken from the helicopter to an archeologist. "Fish traps," he speculated. If so, what were they catching? Whales? These complexes are huge, and 300 kilometers to the east, a university team is studying a giant Aboriginal quarry, where blanks of split stones are stacked, ready for collection. A collection which was interrupted by the shotgun and the Bible. This society was involved in a crucial phase in human development. Those stones were being traded. New science will tell us exactly how far they were traded, and then we will have to ask why did people come so far to trade for these stones, and lump them all the way home? Home. I love using that word in this context, because it defies everything I was taught in Australian history.
But don't worry about the irony of an old man, worry about the nature of the stones. What was special about them? Did they create a better flour? Did they last longer? Was there less rock dust in the produce? Remember that the Pueblo lost their teeth and died young because of the abrasive nature of corn, and the silica residues in their flour. What did these old people of the gibber plains know? How long did it take them to know it?
In Dark Emu, I had written about the explorer Charles Sturt being saved from starvation by Diyari people, who fed him roast duck and a cake they had made from the grain they were growing in the desert. I wanted to visit that site for ABC TV. We flew in the same helicopter I mentioned before, and we arranged to refuel at a cattle station using the ubiquitous fuel card and protocols used by all pilots in the far north.
As we approached the site, we rang in to let the manager know that we were about to land. "You can't," he said. "The boss won't let you." We had organized the refuel weeks before, and confirmed it the night before we flew, but suddenly, we're in a very dangerous situation. "Try the next station," the manager offered. "They might have avgas." Well they didn't, of course, because they didn't have an airplane. So we had to strip the helicopter to make it light enough to fly to the nearest large town. We had to wait at the station where the inhabitants were dumbfounded by our presence.
But now follows a story which should make Australians proud. No, not Eureka Stockade, where miners fought a battle over a mining tax. No, we can't be proud of that. Miners are still trying the same ruse, and Australians keep letting them. We love bandits and extortionists. We love seeing their smooth hairstyles and grand houses in glossy magazines. We seem proud of our mega rich, our mock royalty. No, this hero was a jillaroo, who knew the kind of danger for a pilot flying an air device short of fuel. She loaded a 44 gallon drum of avgas onto a ute and screamed out across the sand dunes to intercept the pilot as he flew over. She pumped the helicopter full of the assurance of some extra fuel. And I often think of you, young woman. No doubt you got the sack. But I wonder in what occupation you now work so morally? I wonder about the children who might idolize the virtue of their mother.
Oh, and who was the station owner who put everybody at risk? Gina Rinehart. I'm glad you enjoyed that, but I want you to think of me in the next few weeks, because she's not going to take that lying down. Gina doesn't like the ABC, and what's the station she bought? One of the Kidman stations, much lauded for the sagacity of Stan to weatherproof his flocks and herds by taking up land in different climate zones of the continent. Sharp as tintacks, that Stan. Gina saw it as some sort of heroism, to bring the Kidman properties and save them from the greedy claws of the celestials further to our north. But who did Stan get that land from, and how did he get it? Does history forget?
"How many cattle did you see today?" I asked the old man as we flew back north from Cooper's Creek. "How many kangaroos?" He turned around in the seat to answer me. "Maybe 100 cattle, and just three roos." So I said to him, "Your people lost all your land, and your neighbors, on all sides, all of theirs, for 100 cattle, and all the country can now support is three roos." We were silent. And I didn't add, because I didn't think of it until later, but this also supports the myth of the brave Australian outback, white man at war with a harsh land. A land where Sir Thomas Mitchell rode through grain higher than his saddle. And now reduced to sand, rock, and weeds thanks to cattle, sheep, and the necessary myth of white excellence. But back in the desert, those two old men were struggling with the enormity of what they were witnessing. Not just domestic social living, not just laboring on a product for trade, but all of it linked by art, and celebrated by ceremony.
Near the quarry, a young Mitaka man showed me a giant ceremonial loop created by the dance of countless numbers of feet over incalculable time, so that spirituality could leaven labor. And who danced? The trader, celebrating a killer deal? Or trader and tradee together, celebrating their earth, imprinting social cooperation? I think it was a remarkable time in world history, and standing in their village, I wonder about humans who linked their suburbs with art. I'm in awe of them.
Using words like art, village, industry, spirituality, trade, peace has got me into a lot of hot water with many historians and archeologists. Old ones. "Piffle!" They say. "No such thing!" But there it is on the ground, waiting to be explained. But only if that old man can find a white archeologist he can trust.
The old man's wife was wandering through the ruins with us and called me over. "Look," she said. "It's the town in miniature." For there on the ground, was a tiny replica of the towns linked by art. We stared at it. "Who would go to the trouble?" She asked herself. "A child remembering a lesson? Or a teacher teaching one?" It was an excellent lesson, but for me it provided part of the answer to a riddle I'd been asking myself for 45 years.
If there was a people who designed a social order based on egalitarian principles, deep in abiding spirituality, technical intelligence, and environmental conservatism, and all of it based on the premise that land war was forbidden. Not fighting, bad temper and violence, the hallmark of all humans, but imperial war, the violent land grab. If such a society existed, what should we call it? How was it maintained? Surely during that time, some young man would've witnessed weaknesses in a neighboring clan, and calculated that they could be defeated in a quick military strike? Surely someone would've dreamt of a kingdom and a crown at some time during those 120,000 years? Why did it never happened? Perhaps the little miniature of the two suburbs linked by art held a clue. The old teaching the young, and the young finding a system of such basic fairness irresistible.
When I was at school, a phalanx of history teachers assured me, year after year, that war was the natural condition of man. The idea that that was the best we could do with our human brains filled me with dread and sorrow. Is that all there is, as Peggy Lee might ask? Is that all there is? Is that the best we can expect from humanity?
But what if it need not be like that? Let's just sit for a moment and listen, while the old teacher teaches a young student, or the student does its homework. Let's go back to the moment where one generation assumes the mantle maintaining a just state. Not a perfect state, because there's always the role for human anger and violence, but not for land. Let's say there's a young girl shifting the stones as she remembers her lesson. As an old teacher, I would love to be there to look at her eyes when she looks up from the stones. "Ah, yes, fairness," she thinks to herself. "That is my ambition." She's not thinking of becoming the chair of Qantas, to please shareholders by sacking people, and refusing frail old gentlemen a cup of tea on a budget flight. No, she is thinking of delivering unity and fairness.
Now, I suspect there are plenty in the room delivering very impatient sighs. "There he goes, gilding the lily, exaggerating, spruiking Black excellence." I can understand your frustration, deep sigher, because our whole education of society has insisted on the opposite. But might I argue for a little patience, on the grounds that you haven't seen these stones? Nobody has in the last 150 years, except maybe the ringer who rode through the complex on his motorbike sometime since the last flood. Riding through without stopping because he saw nothing of importance, just black rubble. Andy's gone with cattle, and he don't know where he are.
So apart from Andy, bored revhead, nobody has seen these stones and they won't, until the old man can find a reason to trust. And we only found these villages by accident, because the helicopter pilot had no permit to fly after dark, and the old man had complicated a visit to his grandmother's grave to show me some old conical Aboriginal houses not yet burned to the ground by the station owner. Not even owner; we gave him a lease of sovereign land. What stipulations are in the 100-year leases we give to our new Stan Kidmans? Clause 17(b)(i)? "And if you see any relics that are of a previous occupation, destroy them for the sake of a hundred cows, even if those relics might have been telling us about a really significant moment in human life, the ability to perceive a society without recourse to war." Such profound, philosophic weight is too important for the temporary rules of land tenure to prohibit us from knowing it.
Let's just say, let's say we won't have a king, all food will be shared, let us consider the earth as our mother, let's... That kind of moment. No, let's say instead, destroy all evidence of that civilization, lest the survivors query the wisdom of us replacing Mitchell's saddle-high grain with 100 cattle so that we can sell them to a charnel house in Indonesia.
I had the good fortune to attend Beth Gott's memorial last week. Beth Gott, a great scientist, who put a lot of work into Aboriginal yam daisy, murnong. Yeah, where we lauded the old scientist's great research, kindness, and humanity. Kindness of which I had been in receipt. "Murnong does not have a sugar, Bruce. It is fructans." The most kind rebuke. She was a stickler for correctness. She wasn't treating me as an inferior, she was treating me like a botanist, which I'm not, a botanist who should know better. She was delivering kindness and respect. She needed me to get it right. She was a magnificent teacher.
Anyway, after saying goodbye to Beth, we stood around enjoying beer and wine and those little things on plates which are designed to flop onto the front of your shirt. And I became reckless. I engaged every historian, archeologist in conversation about my current favorite subject. "Is Jim Bowler right in saying that humans were cooking dinner at Point Ritchie in Victoria 120,000 years ago?" I lit the match and stood there as innocently as I could manage, waiting for the bomb to go off. But it didn't. We all spilled canapes, of course, because that's how Leunig's chef designed them. But no, there was speculation about the fact that no tools had been found with the shells.
"But what if we were looking for the wrong tools?" I said. Two Carlton Draughts, and I get a death wish. Someone raised Out of Africa, and someone else, onto his third sparkling, said, "But if Out of Africa was correct, you'd expect ancient skeletons in Asia." We all looked around at each other, and eventually the consensus was, "Yes, maybe old Bill is right. And if he's right, there's a shit load of extra work to do." I didn't say "shit load", but five sparklings can make some scholarly women say the most outrageous things.
And then a man who drank only orange juice said, "And then of course, there's the concept of the house and the village. We archeologists reserve those terms for the genesis of our own society." Yes, that's exactly how he spoke. "But a living space can be a house, and a collection of them should be called a village." And he quoted an interesting book he'd read about, which argued just those points.
If you only read the Herald Sun, Age, and listened to ABC, or clicked onto crikey.com, you might think ideas like this were shunned by the cognoscenti, that they were anathema to thinking academics. But apparently that is not the case. In open, unedited conversation, the speculation is rife. The idea that Australians might have developed something truly unique is an open secret. And if such a society existed, its foundations must be respected, and its philosophy exported. There's a market in Ukraine and the Middle East right now. Australia's contribution to world charity might be crates of compassion and peace. We'd even let our prime minister stand in front of them wearing a baseball cap. But who would we say the gifts were from? Australia's boundless empathy, or the oldest civilization on earth?
Let's just say, for a moment, that the world is ready to accept such a gift. Will Australia, the grandee, shuffle his feet in embarrassment as thanks is showered on his modest head? Or will he say, "Actually mate, yeah, nah. We stole this from that bloke over there, but we can't speak his language, so we've never managed to say thanks." No, you're right. No real Australian bloke is going to say that.
So once again, we'll have to rely on a Sheila to shift her shuffling man aside, in all his beetroot embarrassment and idiocy, and she will have to say, "Oh, can I introduce you to Auntie Barbara? All but three of her family were killed by us in 1884 for stealing a sheep, if hunger and desperation can be called theft. Only Barb's mum was taken away from her mum, and put in a mission, and had her knuckles sliced with a steel ruler if she ever spoke her language. We were proud when our piccaninny learnt to sing God Save the Queen, and rewarded her with a koala stamp and a dress two sizes too small. Yeah, it is only Barbara's people you have to thank. We took it from them, and pretended it was their fault. But we're over that now. We've watched Australian Wars, and decided the Australian War Museum will indeed recognize the greatest war of all. My husband would've said all this, but he's still sulking because Collingwood haven't won a flag in 30 years. But he's coming around to the idea that there was a war in this country when the land was stolen, and it is time we had a treaty."
"Ah, shut up, Shirl! They're serving canapes." Ah, old man, sitting in the stones of your old people's walls. I saw how slowly you rose from your chair, how you lifted your leg into the ute. I know those signs. So I am worried about how much time you have to wait until civility overrides the selfishness in the Australian breast. But things are changing, aren't they?
Elbow wants the Statement from the Heart, and that literally moved us to tears. And supremely patient elders in Victoria are at the smithy bending steel into sweet scrolls of hope, a treaty after all this time, and in the only Commonwealth country not to think of it until now. Yes, things are changing, but old man, do you have time? Will this decade write of your old people's village, and the little girl playing with the philosopher stones? Will they write of it with relief and love? Or will they say any recognition of your rights would be too ambitious and upsetting for our adversarial democracy?
I don't know, old man. I don't know if you can wait that long, but I've heard your daughter's laughter on the phone. She sounds lighthearted, indomitable. Maybe it will fall to her to take the white hands and listen to an offer of peace and love. And will historians ever write about peace and love? Or is that outside the strictest of the academy? Good luck, old man. And good luck to your daughter. I hope her hand isn't knotted with the strings of age before she hears those words. I hope my granddaughter is alive to hear them, and to say [foreign language], through the mother. Thank you.
Dr Stephen Gapps:
Well, thank you everyone, and thank you so much, Bruce. Such a mix of sadness and inspiration. So thank you for that. How to follow that up? Well, we have time. We have time for some questions and do we have some roving mics? So if you give Bruce one moment to gather his thoughts, and we can have some questions from the audience. So, let's... Are you all right, Bruce? Do you want to...
I guess I'm an old historian, and I'm a fellow of the Academy, and before I continue, can I thank you immensely for [inaudible] you've shown us tonight, and for that simply breathtaking eloquence, I think we're all left astounded by your presentation.
My question merges the past with the future, and it has to do with that wonderful moment in your presentation when you gave us that image of Mitchell traversing across the landscape, and the grain growing as high as the saddle. With all the climate change that's going on now, we hear that phrase "tipping point" time and time again, and I'm wondering if you think that much of the Australian landscape is gone beyond that tipping point, that it cannot recover. Or, and I'm referring here to your magnificent work, whether you think the Australian landscape is resilient enough to recover from the devastation of the European invasion, just as our society must recover from that devastation?
Prof Bruce Pascoe:
Well, I'd like to begin the answer to the question by thanking country for this, it's very special to me to be able to take that home. I think Mother Earth is really enduring. We refer to her as Mother Earth, [foreign language], means through the mother, literally the baby crowning through the mother's body. And if you think of Mother Earth as your own mother, whatever you do to Mother, you have to be prepared to do to your own mother. And so it's a very important philosophic concept, to care so deeply for the land as you do for your mother. And I think she is resilient. I think if we could take camels, cattle, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, and all the other feral animals off that land, and the cats. [foreign language], as our people call them. If we took all that off the land, she would come back.
Because even today you find outbreaks of Mitchell grass where stock are prevented from getting there. It's grass this high. Don't worry about Mitchell, worry about the horse. The horse couldn't see a thing. It was incredibly abundant grassland. It had seasons, so that grass wasn't always there, but it was still perennial. And the grasses that we grow on the farm down on the Wallangra, are perennial, the tubers we grow are perennial. With one of the tubers, which you're going to become familiar with if you can last another six months or a year, we call it [foreign language], and it's a chocolate lily or a vanilla lily. And it's a lily that grows so high we just ferret underneath it, because it creates its own tilth in the soil. It is its own gardener. And our action of taking tubers from beneath the plant and putting them in the basket also helps that tilth, it has been used to human involvement. So actually now, because of the way the plant has developed over millennia, it needs that. It has grown to want that interference of us, our relationship with that plant.
So I think Mother Earth is so resilient that, as long as we don't go too overboard, that we can recover. It's like climate change, and looking at the figures out of the US, UK this morning about how desperately we need to change our mind. If we were to do that, Mother Earth would accommodate it. After the 2019 fires at Mallacoota, which devastated that community, and psychologically that community hasn't recovered. But Mother Earth, she recovered in three weeks after the fire had gone by. Now, in Mallacoota the fire lasted one day, devastatingly, one day. Where I was, up the river, it lasted six weeks, but after that six weeks, it began to rain. And we were pretty devastated that we lost all our crops, all our fences, most of our sheds, and our grain, devastated. Because we'd put a lot of work into it.
Three days after, the rain? There it was. Mother Earth said, "Now's your time." And with all that extra carbon on the top of the soil, we got the best crop we've ever seen. And it taught us number of lessons. One is never give up. And number two is this country is used to burning, but it's the quality of the burn. We can burn and walk around it in thongs. I taught my son how to burn like that. I said, "Don't put on boots. If the fire is too hot for you to walk through it in thongs, that is your fault. You got to fix that." So to answer your question, yeah, Mother Earth can do it. But not forever. We have to pull our heads in and lift our hearts up.
[inaudible] amongst everything else, you've given us hope.
Prof Bruce Pascoe:
I strongly believe in hope. I'm not going to give up, because I got four grandkids.
Mr. Pascoe, Bruce, thank you so much for coming to Orange, and speaking with us tonight. I have a question to follow up on one of the points you made, but first, just the previous gentleman, I worked in agriculture for quite a few years and have a continuing interest in it, about the recovery of country. There are immigrant farmers, post-1788, who are taking lessons from Aboriginal culture, adopting, with modifications, I must admit, Aboriginal cultural practices, and they are bringing the land back to life. So, it can be done, and it can be done at profit to the farmer.
My question, however, goes back to a very brief comment you made about 120,000 years, and what has proven to be a cultural fire near Warrnambool. Would you care to comment further on that time span? 120,000 years. The academic archeologists will go so far as saying 45 to 50,000 years, we can support. Maybe 60,000 at a pinch. 120,000 years, that has incredible ability to put the cat amongst the pigeons about the history of the homo genera, and particularly homo sapiens, our own species. Thank you.
Prof Bruce Pascoe:
Yeah, it's a big statement, and I like saying it because it does put the tiger amongst the sparrows, and the tiger always wins. But Jim Bowler did the work at Mungo, Lake Mungo. A very important scientist, but Gurdip Singh, in the '70s, came up with a year for Aboriginal burning at Lake George of 120,000 years, and he was laughed out of the house. Norman Tindale was laughed out of the house when he suggested that the oldest stone implements on earth were to be found in Australia. He was an American, and once again there was some kind of racial implication to explain his idiocy. Gurdip Singh, Luise Hercus, the language person, so many of our foremost experts in these areas have come from somewhere else. That's not going to be the case forever. I'm going to Brisbane now to talk to a whole group of young archeologists from University of Queensland, who are now waist-deep in that archeology that I referred to before. And I think times are changing.
Jim Bowler is suggesting, from his research, that Aboriginal people were cooking shellfish at Point Pearce near Warrnambool in Victoria 120,000 years ago. And Ian McNiven is cautious about it, if not critical, by saying there are no tools to be found amongst that shellfish. So what tools would they be? Would they be hammers? Would they be chisels? Because they're not there. Or would they be, because we're cooking shellfish now, would they be the rim of a cockle shell, so that you could ever so delicately spear the meat and eat it in a lot better fashion than my grandkids eat today?
Yeah, I think there's something in that. And I say 120,000 years boldly, because there's got to be a lot of more work done on this. But we've only scratched the service, and I know that historians and archeologists get really, deeply offended when I say, "Not enough work has been done in this area." Because they say, "Well, I've been working in this area all my life. I've done good science, I've done good research." I'm not saying that didn't happen. What I'm saying is not enough of it happened.
One of my friends, Professor Hope, who was working on the Murray-Darling Basin, she was saying to me three years ago, "My best students of archeology still go to Egypt, when there's all this work to be done here." We need archeologists on the field, but to work with Aboriginal people, not work despite Aboriginal people, to work with Aboriginal people. And Michael Westaway, who's doing this work at Mitaka, is working very closely with the Gorringe family. And that's the first time I've seen it. It's not perfect, because they drive through that old man's town that I spoke about before, and they don't even go around and see him. So it's not perfect, but we're getting there. At least it's a start.
And I think that, within the decade, we'll be confidently talking about 120,000 years. We say 65,000 years pretty confidently because of Madjedbebe, where there's direct evidence of 65,000 years of occupation in that cave, even though they haven't reached the bottom of that living site yet. There are some archeologists who are working on sites that they think are 80,000 years, and there's Jim Bowler saying 120,000 years. That old man has been pilloried. Jim's not very well, he's quite old. And if I'm saying quite old, he's bloody old. But he's been pilloried by the Academy for suggesting that age. And I think it's a shame. I think we should, if you don't believe it, respect it. Respect the science, because Jim's not doing that to... He's got nothing to gain. He's so old, there is nothing to gain. You could not bribe him. You couldn't give him a gilt-edge professorship somewhere. He doesn't need it. He doesn't want it. Just respect it, because it's happening.
I was saying at Beth Gott's funeral, where I was chancing my arm amongst all these expert archeologists and historians, you won't get a gathering like that very often, and they came to celebrate Beth's life. I was doing that to see where the profession felt where things were going. And all of them were saying, "Yeah, it's going to blow up, this idea." And the trajectory; when I went to school on King Island, I was told Aboriginal people had been in Australia for 5,000 years. So, in the trajectory of my lifetime, it's like that. It's like inflation.
But the old people said, "We have always been here." And of course that was laughed out of the house. "These savages, what would they know? They think they've always been here." What about Out of Africa? Well, the Out of Africa theory has been changed about eight times in the last decade. The maths was wrong first. Looked like I'd done it. But our old people, from down south, say, "We came from the south, not the north." I'm not going to argue that point, but I want respect for the idea that Aboriginal people have always been here. Now, "always" is a concept that might mean 80,000 years, it might mean 120,000 years, but it also questions the movement of humans around the globe.
But the fascinating thing for me, and I know this is a long answer, but I'm thinking of the trajectory of the humans' use of their own brain. What we do, as Aboriginal people in Australia, Asian people, African people, South American people, were also attempting. The human brain has a capacity, and is likely, after enough time of effort and study and innovation, to come up with the same ideas. But what hasn't occurred elsewhere in the world, and is, I think, that exportable quality, is to do so without going to war. I think that is incredible, and... Well, thank you for that. But please think of me when Andrew Bolt hears it.
Who is he? Who is...
Dr Stephen Gapps:
Do we have another question?
Dr Stephen Gapps:
Yes, we've got time for a couple.
Well, actually, it's not, I'm a fraud. I don't have a question. I have a huge thank you, because Bruce actually pointed out, I'm a teacher, but I suspect, Bruce, we're actually in a room of teachers. All of us are either grandparents, parents, aunties, uncles, brothers, sisters, we all have a teaching role. And I think you're also talking to an audience who, as all good teachers, are insatiable to expand their body of knowledge, to refine it, and so forth. So my thanks to you, because you, I think, quite seriously, single-handedly, have opened up to a whole wealth of Australians, your fellow countrymen, a whole new perspective, body of knowledge, that people have an insatiable appetite to learn more about, to become far more familiar with, and as I say, I know, and you've mentioned that Andrew Bolt, I know you personally, and we have all seen that you have taken an enormous amount of flack for doing what you have done. But I think what you have done has been absolutely invaluable to the body of knowledge and understanding we, as Australians, really need, to live in this continent as Australians. So, my sincere thank you to that, I think it's an outstanding effort.
Prof Bruce Pascoe:
Thanks Don. And I'd also like to thank Uncle Stan Grant, who's a magnificent human and intellect, and personally helped me finding my family. So I'll never forget him, and he's not very well, and our next gathering might be for him.
Bruce, just quickly, I'm also a retired Australian history teacher, and I endeavored to let the kids know the truth, and I had the toughest kids in the class go out in tears. So I just hope you like that, and they thanked me.
Prof Bruce Pascoe:
Good on you. Thank you.
[inaudible] practitioner myself, being taught by traditional custodians from Cape York. There was a royal commission into the bush fires down the South Coast, and they were recommending bringing traditional practices back into place. What's your thoughts on that?
Prof Bruce Pascoe:
Well, the old man who we got our law from, for the fire, was always wondering why we're getting people from Queensland to talk about fire on this country. It's Vic Steffenson we're talking about, and he's a really keen, very knowledgeable man. But each part of country has its own law, fire law, and it's not universal. So, the local custodians are the people who conduct that, with the assistance of whoever wants to give assistance, but it belongs to those people. And fire is not just fire, you don't just light country. You have to look at country and learn about country, you have to love country, and you have to understand it. You have to have been, if possible, born in that country, so you know the volatility of some grasses, the susceptibility of some trees to being killed by fire. You have to know all that. It's a gentle, gentle science, it's not just setting fire to the bush and saying, "That's a cultural burn." You'd need experts like you, brother.
Yeah, [inaudible]. No, it's understanding country. We look at country different, the Western science with RFS. I worked with RFS for over 15 years, doing hazard reduction burns. And they are intense heat, that goes out to kill the ecosystem, not understanding what it does to the actual country. So it's, I guess, for both partnerships to come together and realize that this is doable. But it's the hierarchies that sit on top of the food chain that don't understand the complexity of reading country, understanding country. We look at country different to Westerners. Country talks to us, we look at the vegetation certain times of year, the six seasons. So, I feel, hopefully, this could be a successful thing in future. But it's something that I feel that Westerners need to understand, that we managed our land for a very long time, successfully, and I feel we should be able to continue that.
Prof Bruce Pascoe:
You would reckon it'd be common sense. Yeah. Thank you. Involving Aboriginal people, you'd reckon it'd be common sense, but I see it where some European agencies get hold of that knowledge, and want to do it themselves, and take the credit, and do it improperly. Involvement of Aboriginal people is crucial. I want our kids to be going out with their elders and doing that. I want our kids to earn money looking after country. I want our kids to be trained to be rangers, to go up that mountain and care for it. I wish, for my country, for my towns, that the Aboriginal kids wouldn't be walking up and down the street in the middle of the day. I want work for those kids. I don't want them getting bored and harming themselves. I want our kids to be proud of this incredible culture. Thanks, brother.
Dr Stephen Gapps:
We've got one more question here. Yeah, thank you.
I'd like to say again, thank you Bruce for coming on and sharing your incredible depth of knowledge. Trev and I, we've been fortunate enough, been very privileged, to work with the Wiradjuri community doing cultural astronomy. And I think when we talk about country, everyone has a different definition of what country is. So, I'm a proud Palawa woman, but I've lived and worked with different communities in Sydney, and Uluru, and Tasmania, and here. And when we talk about Sky Country, and how that ties into the traditional burning, forecasting weather, seasonal resource calendars, understanding the country, reading country, the ecology, we're talking about the health of people, and the health of country, being able to tie in all that knowledge together to diagnose what the problems are and how to fix them, I find it really quite interesting that there's definitely a growing movement towards sharing knowledge, but we still have to protect that everyone has a right or a custodianship of knowledge too.
So, we're in a very special position of working with elders in Wiradjuri communities across the country, but we have an obligation to share. So with working and teaching, as you say, other gentlemen mentioned, we all take on that teaching responsibility too. So I find it really heartwarming, as a person who's Tasmanian Aboriginal, being taught in the same school system saying, "You don't exist anymore," that we're now more prepared as a nation to acknowledge that we actually are here as peoples, as nations, with our own special knowledge, and sharing that and working with modern contemporary society and saying, "Okay, country's changed. It's been burnt, it's been overridden by introduced animals and so forth, but it can be redeemed if we redeem ourselves, essentially."
So, in terms of preserving knowledge, and Sky Country being part of that picture, when we talk about the stone arrangements, or things being burnt or erased to hide the evidence, we're also actively doing that with our Sky Country too, with the light pollution and air pollution and so forth. So I kind of want us to think a bit more, and get your perspective, on how Sky Country plays a role in that, preserving that traditional knowledge.
Prof Bruce Pascoe:
Yeah. Well, the old people say that everything on earth is reflected in the sky. Any cultural idea on earth, you'll also see in the sky, the Dark Emu being one of those things, because it's physically a sculpture on the ground near Sydney and elsewhere, and it's in the sky, the Dark Emu is the dark space near Scorpio. And all of that is there. And if we treat the space like a garbage tip, like an old farm with broken cars and oil drums, then we'll have done to the universe what we've already done to the world.
I don't think humans are that stupid. I live in hope that we're not so stupid as to kill ourselves. I might be wrong, and I could be wrong in 10 years time, but I have hope that when we talk to our kids and we offer them the option... Say to an eight year old, I think we should always have an eight year old as prime minister, say to the eight year old, "Look, do you reckon we should have a world, or should we destroy it?" What would the eight year old say? The 17 year old would say, "Well, what would be the financial gain of destroying the world for me, now, in my life? Would I get a Maserati?" "Yeah, you would." "Well, let's blow her up."
Dr Stephen Gapps:
I think we've just got time for two more. Yep. At the back there, sorry.
I'm a young archeologist. My name's Abigail, I'm from Lutruwita, Tasmania. And I was just wondering if you had any advice or wisdom for how this new generation of archeologists or historians, academics, can avoid making the same mistakes and wrongs as their forebears?
Prof Bruce Pascoe:
Don't. Just don't. There is so much work to do in the field of archeology, in the field of agriculture, the field of culture, generally. There is so much work to do. And that's why I berate the kids in Eden when I find them out of the classroom. Because I say, "You all got a responsibility as an Aboriginal kid to look after this culture, and look what you're doing. Eating raspberry snakes at 12 o'clock in the afternoon, you know? Your people are better than that, and you ought to be better than that."
And archeologists know what to do. They know the interesting things. In Tasmania, there are old house sites on the West Coast. I don't know how much work is being done, but I hear Tasmanian people talking as if they didn't exist. There's work to do there, and your academy may not have been interested in the past, but they will be now. And there's a young woman working up at Mitaka country, doing botany, and I don't think she's 26 years old, and she's finding out things which are going to benefit every Australian, about those plants; their resilience, what they need. So, there's plenty of work to do.
Dr Stephen Gapps:
So we've got time for one more question. Thank you. Thanks. Yes.
Bruce, thanks very much mate. You touch our hearts, I think. White fellas have forgotten their history. 600 years ago, land enclosures kicked us off our land, and broke that connection. Machines taught us to live by machines. Again, 65,000 years, and that's bugger all. What's the way forward? If the land is the law and the law can be consistent, how do we connect with that? Where to from here, mate?
Prof Bruce Pascoe:
Well, wherever we go, we do it slowly and carefully and thoughtfully. I'm talking about removing cattle and sheep from the landscape, not immediately, but I think it would be really helpful if we started eating kangaroos and bandicoots. But if we did that, we would have to ensure the health of bandicoots and kangaroos. And we're not going to be able to exist in a country without those animals, without those grains in the short-term. But over time, if we reduce the amount we ate, because Western people eat far too much anyway, if we reduce the amount of meat we ate, as against vegetables... 80% of the Aboriginal diet in the East Coast was vegetables.
So, if we did all of those things, and transferred some of that attention toward the kangaroo and the other meat-bearing animals in Australia, but do it with love. We're going to eat these bandicoot now, they're delicious. I shouldn't know that, but I do. If we're going to eat bandicoot, we have to love bandicoot. Not for its meat, but for itself. This is what I was taught, this is the law that I was taught. When you take a branch off the tree, you thank the tree. You ask the tree, "Is it okay if I take this small branch now, because I need it to do this other thing?" And when I was taught that a long time ago, I thought, "Oh, that's quaint." But what it does is, every time you reach for the plant, you think, "How badly do I need that?" And it'll be the same with bandicoots and kangaroos. "How badly do I need that? Am I prepared to kill for that? Yeah, I'm hungry. I'm going to kill." As the dingoes killed kangaroo on my property two or three days ago, one of the most dramatic events I've ever seen.
But I think we go forward slowly, and carefully, and with love, and we reform a lot of our things that we'd inherited directly from the British, and that's our diet. And we start changing accordingly. There's so much, there's so much to do. There's so much to think about, there's so much to study. We need experts, and we need this in conjunction with Aboriginal people who are on their land. And not just to tick a box, because that happens all the time, but to work carefully for the sake of Mother Earth. And if we think of her as our mother, the whole idea of what we take from the earth changes, and how we take it, and how much we take. So, I can't answer your question, except to say slowly.
Dr Stephen Gapps:
So, thanks so much everyone for those questions, and thank you again, Bruce. Before we leave to have, I think there's a light supper and some drinks? Yes. And I just want to thank the History Council's supporters briefly. As I mentioned, this is the first time we've staged the Annual History Lecture in a regional area and I think it's been really successful, thank you.
I'd like to thank Bruce, of course, again, [Wiradjuri], Bruce, fantastic that you could come tonight. The History Council of New South Wales supporters include Create New South Wales, who've provided us with a grant for many years now. Destination New South Wales provided us with a grant to get out here this year, which was really great, through the Regional Business Event Development Fund. Orange City Council, thank you, who've been a great cultural partner of ours for about five years now, and whose staff, particularly Alison Russell, have provided ongoing, invaluable advice to our team and to get this event up and running tonight, so thank you. I'd also like to thank our cultural partners, whose name should be on the screen, as well as the various subcommittee members in the History Council. And of course, our hardworking staff. Catherine Shirley here, Sarah Swift up the back, Lauren Chater, and our intern, Laura. But last, but not least, I would like to thank Lisa Patton, who worked as our First Nations project officer recently, and who was a great inspiration.
So, to finish up, thank you so much again, Bruce, for that wonderful lecture. And I invite you all to join us next door. Again, thank you, and a big round of applause to Bruce, thank you.