Mike Smith’s Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts

Mike Smith, The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts (Cambridge University Press 2013)

Whatever else it may be, a desert is a historical document preserving a complex record of the interaction of past climates, geomorphic processes and cultural systems. I like to think of these landscapes as a palimpsest of different deserts. Stratified in time, stacked one above another, each has its own climate, physical landscapes and environment; each its own social landscapes and people, places of association and belonging, territories, resources and itineraries. Some features of earlier deserts project through these layers to become part of the fabric and cultural geography of later deserts. Structural features and processes are held in common: wind and water shape landforms; the basin and range topography provides the formwork of the landscape. No one desert is erased entirely by succeeding deserts – a fact that makes archaeology possible. This monograph – the first book-length archaeological study of Australia’s deserts – is an attempt to map out these histories.

That’s the opening paragraph of Mike Smith’s preface to The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts, and it’s a fair account of his project. The book is written with archaeological scholars and students in mind, and general readers are likely to find it hard going. At least I did. But, with judicious skipping and a willingness to read on even while suspecting I might sometimes be missing the point, I found it fascinating.

Tom Griffiths wrote in The Art of Time Travel, ‘Historians always have at least two stories to tell: what we think happened and how we know what we think happened.’ In this book, both stories are wonderful, and neither can be honestly told without the other.

As this is a survey of a vast field of exploration, the story of ‘how we know what we think happened’ really is about ‘we’ the profession rather than ‘I’ the author. Again and again, someone is cited as proposing a version of what happened 20, 30 or 50 thousand years ago, only to have that explanation deemed unconvincing in the light of more recent evidence and replaced by a new theory, which is discarded in its turn. There are many sentence like this:

The prevailing view that higher rainfall, and active rivers and lakes, had marked the late glacial climate [that is, the last stages of the last ice age, a little more than 13 000 years ago] changed so abruptly in the mid-1960s that by 1975, little trace of it remained.

One imagines whole lifetimes of study and theorising falling in ruins in less than a decade, and at the same time one is warned that the chapters that follow may some day meet a similar fate.

This constant, apparently dispassionate scepticism, and the implied scholarly humility, stands in heartening contrast to the common discourse of politicians and opinionators who reject inconvenient science and call themselves sceptics.

A second aspect of the ‘how’, as important as the first but here less captivating, is technological advance, particularly in dating techniques. Some of the new technologies are explained in a glossary, but I mostly skipped the discussions of the different dates arrived at using different  processes – I’ll just trust the scientists to know their ABOX 14C from their TIM U/Th. In this case I’m interested in the findings rather than the nano nuts and bolts.

Then there’s the other story, the provisional narrative created from the archaeological evidence. There were people in the Australian deserts (and Smith does say ‘people’, which reads as if ‘like us’ is implied) more than 50 000 years ago, when they shared the place with diprotodons and giant emu-like birds. Those people’s descendants found ways to survive the most intense period of the last ice age 19 to 26 and a half thousand years ago (the ‘Last Glacial Maximum’ or LGM, ‘26.5–19 ka’ in scientific language). As the bitter aridity of that age passed, there is evidence that the population in the deserts increased, and different kinds of trade flourished over great distances. There were changes in technology, culture (Smith’s discussion of cave art is fascinating) and language (who knew that palaeolinguistics was a thing?). The detail is hard for the inexpert reader to follow at times, but what emerges is a rich, complex narrative that is challenging to widely held assumptions on many levels.

Let me give two examples that came up while I was still reading the book.

First, in the splendid exhibition The history of the world in 100 objects currently showing at the  National Museum of Australia, one of the wall notes reads in part:

At the end of the last Ice Age, as the climate warmed up across the world, humans gradually shifted from hunting and gathering to a settled way of life based on farming – and in the process, our relationship to the natural world was transformed. From living as a minor part of a balanced ecosystem, we start trying to overcome nature – to take control.

Well, not all humans. People in Australia did it differently. Even the term ‘ice age’ doesn’t describe what was happening in this part of the world: rather than great sheets of ice, people here had to cope with great dust bowls. Smith discusses at some length the probable different strategies adopted. And as the climate warmed up and the human population grew, even in the desert areas, people in Australia continued to live as part of the ecosystem. Once, this would have been seen as a failure to progress, but now it begins to look much more like something the rest of the world can learn from.

The second example is something Bruce Pascoe, a Bunurong man, said at Jonathan Jones’s profound installation, barrangal dyara (skin and bones) in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens. Pascoe reminded us that long before settlement (he said that in Victoria he’s not allowed to say ‘invasion’) the old people had worked out something rare if not unique in the history of the planet: how to live without wars over land.

Before reading Mike Smith’s book, I would probably have heard this as somehow meaning that the Aboriginal culture and politics had been been unchanging in since an imagined meeting of elders that happened millennia ago. But not now. The archaeological record is very limited in what it can tell us about what happened tens of thousands of years ago, but it does indicate that as circumstances changed (as sea levels fell and rose by more than a hundred metres, for example) so did people’s behaviour. Cultures developed and changed, as did social organisation and people’s relationship to country (archaeologists talk of ‘territoriality’ and ‘land tenure’). Bruce Pascoe’s observation is a powerful counter to the colonialist notion that there is a single template for progress in human affairs, and that Europeans are much ‘further along’ than Aboriginal peoples. No, he says, Aboriginal people chose a different path, a different kind of complexity. Listening to him with Mike Smith’s book fresh in my mind, I’m struck by the startlingly obvious idea that those ‘old people’ were not some imaginary super-beings, but historical humans who grappled with the problems of existence at least as creatively as anyone else on the planet, and in some respect made wiser decisions.

I read this book because of Tom Griffiths’s chapter on Mike Smith in The Art of Time Travel. It was every bit as daunting as I expected, but worth it: like the difference between a reproduction of a painting and the painting itself.

4 responses to “Mike Smith’s Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts

  1. Oh my goodness, Jonathan – your writing reviewing this book and commenting on Bruce PASCOE is like balm to my heart!

    I did not know of this book by Mike SMITH but want to purchase it! Again – als immer – Vielen Dank! Jim K.

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  2. Hi Jim. I haven’t overstated the difficulty of the book. It’s densely academic – and I couldn’t find a copy for sale anywhere. The Tom Griffiths one might be a better place to start

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  3. Fascinating Jonathan. I was going to ask why you’d read this book, but you answered that at the end. Regarding Pascoe saying “settlement” not “invasion”, I read another blogger (or blog commenter) the other day saying they always try to remember to say “white settlement”. But clearly Pascoe doesn’t see the need to make that distinction?

    I enjoyed your reflection on scientists and their ego, too, “This constant, apparently dispassionate scepticism, and the implied scholarly humility, stands in heartening contrast to the common discourse of politicians and opinionators who reject inconvenient science and call themselves sceptics.” Point well made. Scientists do need to be “egoless” if they are going to keep discovering, but so should our politicians. They should be able to say “I made a mistake, I’ve changed my mind” BUT then we all yell “broken promise”. Hmmm … I’ve gone a bit off topic but that’s where your commentary led me!

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  4. Pingback: Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful | Me fail? I fly!

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