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Must be Indian: Human Settlement in Australia

Must be Indian: Human Settlement in Australia

Race, ethnicity and origins are always up for political grabs. No one really wants to know that they were preceded by someone else, that they were not the first ones there. This is the Adam complex, and no culture is immune from it.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences conducted by German geneticists suggests that there was a “substantial gene flow between Indian populations and Australia about 4,230 years ago” (Sci-News, Jan 15).

The authors recapitulate the familiar theme of an isolated civilization on a continent holding “some of the earliest archaeological evidence for the expansion of modern humans out of Africa”. They note that the genetic history of Australians has not been examined in detail, finding an “ancient association between Australia, New Guinea, and the Manwanwa (a Negrito group from the Philippines)” and “a signal indicative of substantial gene flow between the Indian populations and Australia well before European contact, contrary to the prevailing view that there was no contact between Australia and the rest of the world.”

The study should not come as a surprise, though the reaction from Australia’s archaeological and broader scientific community will be of interest. The discussion of Indian roots in the Australian connection is probably bound to be troubling for the cognoscenti. It has become something of a shibboleth – the “oldest” civilization and the fact that isolated human existence began on the curiously shaped Australian continent some 40,000 years ago (give or take 10 thousand here and there – who cares?).

Scientists can be a sclerotic lot, often more keen to abide by manifestoes and what their grant making bodies want than the raw pursuit of science. When native title came into vogue as an important feature of Australia’s legal and political landscape, the rush was on to show the continuous association of various indigenous peoples with their lands. Inconsistencies, or parallel accounts on such rock depictions as the Bradshaw (Gwion Gwion) paintings were ignored. What does not fit in the cosmos can be conveniently excised or simply ignored.

Most controversially for the stick in the mud community were suggestions by the greatest authority on the Bradshaws – Graham Walsh – who suggested that the sophisticated creations were the product of an Asiatic race before the last ice age. In an interview for Australian Story (ABC, Oct 14, 2002), this aficionado of rock art re-iterated those claims that terrified the establishment. “They’ve got to be in excess of 17,500 years, everything that’s on this panel – sort of 4 to 5 times the age of classic Egypt and the pyramids.” That culture had to have been mobile, using boats, and moving populations. Walsh has documented but a small section of the thousands of sites.

Other scientists, using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and 14C AMS techniques, have attempted to date the paintings. One study suggested a span of 1500 to 4000 years. Another came close to the Walsh figure of 17,000.

A clue on how this latest recent study on Holocene transfer between India and Australia might be treated can be gathered from the overwhelmingly negative response to Walsh. Walsh was the Galileo of the room, attacked by the Australian Archaeological Association for refusing to comply with the political program. He was, as it were, out of sync with the big project of the 1990s – seeking to find continuous cultural associations with land since 1788. The scientific had to square with the political. On December 18, 1995, the Association issued a media statement claiming that Walsh’s interpretations were “based on and encourage racist stereotypes.”

In 1996, the ideology of the association did not waver. The statement issued by the organisation then is worth considering, given that an observation is made merely to be ignored entirely. First, a sober note: “To argue for human cultural and genetic continuity in the Kimberly region over a minimum of 40,000 years is to argue for a degree of conservatism without parallel anywhere else in the world and which is at odds with the current archaeological record.”

Then, the blade is unsheathed. “Even so, there is no basis for ascribing Bradshaws, or any other prehistoric Australian rock art, to any other than the ancestors of Australian Aborigines.” True, there might have been involvement (genetic, cultural) “from adjacent areas of SE Asia”, but that counted for little in the categorisation of the peoples of the area as “Aboriginal”.

The response from various members of the indigenous community was also notable. Many indigenous elders dismissed the Bradshaws as “rubbish” art, barely worth a mention.

Ian McNiven and Lynette Russell, along with Michael Barry, Peter White and Darrell Lewis, were similarly interested in perpetuating the police man version of history and science, one that must abide by the appropriate political strictures lest it re-enforce racial “stereotypes”. Indigeneity is supreme, and hermetic. These academics, after all, know what the policemen of science want. Writing in 1997, McNiven and Russell claimed that, “Walsh, in refuelling a diffusionist debate, has resurrected a colonialist standpoint that has played into the hands of political conservatives and again placed Aboriginal people in the position of having to demonstrate authenticity and legitimacy.”

Walsh was an Indiana Jones keen to seek out the lost civilization when it was always there, governed by the indigenous populace. He was also – and the slur was never far away – funded at stages by the cash of pastoralists and media moguls. The indigenous population of the Kimberley, in contrast, had no reason to prove anything. Walsh, responding in 2000, decried this attitude as reminiscent of a “cultural Dark Ages” where logic and accuracy were excluded. “Emotional biases cloaked in the guise of scientific rigour are rapidly controlling the potential for voicing of contrary opinions.”

The anti-scientific gibberish spouted at Walsh and the Bradshaw paintings is not bound to stop there. Identity, framed in the political and cultural sense, is a dangerous and treasured thing. It remains to be seen whether the latest claims about an Indian genetic connection might be dismissed by the Australian community, both scientific and indigenous, as a “rubbish” link contrary to hermetic indigeneity.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:


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