As I got older I noticed some slight variations in how people would phrase this, and noticed similar patterns of what the perceived problem was. I would hear it said as ‘are among the oldest cultures on earth’, or more pointedly, ‘the oldest continuous cultures outside of Africa’.
This is the point of confusion for many who follow the ‘out of Africa’ migration theory. If Aboriginal people came to Australia from Africa, and there are still people in Africa, then wouldn’t that mean that African cultures are the oldest continuous cultures on earth?
Personally, I have always been happy to presume that Aboriginal people have always been in Australia, as our knowledges suggest, but I am also happy to concede that if the scientific consensus is currently with the out of Africa theory then they presumably have some evidence to back this up even if it isn’t necessarily conclusive. However, this doesn’t seem to be the source of the confusion as I have heard various academics and scientists alike support the statement that Aboriginal cultures are indeed the oldest continuous cultures on earth.
So if we accept that Aboriginal cultures aren’t the oldest cultures on earth, then the significance of this statement must hinge on the qualifier, ‘continuous’.
We only know of about 500 years of interaction with other groups outside of Australia; trading with Macassan fisherman and with Dutch sailors in the Northern regions. Indeed, even the name ‘Arnhem Land’ demonstrates this Dutch connection as Arnhem is the name of a Dutch ship (named after a town in the Netherlands) that sailed to the Northern Territory in 1623. The word ‘balanda’, a common name for white people in the NT, is believed to have been a term introduced from Sulawesi, Indonesia.
This idea of isolation, and continuation of culture with limited outside influence, has sadly been used in attempts to denigrate Aboriginal cultures and societies by those whose view of society and culture is so limited that they can only judge and view other cultures through the lens of their own history. This is a limitation in their own understanding and is not backed up by science, common sense, a common story, and definitely not by common decency.
Even without outside influence and the introduction of sciences, philosophies and technologies from other groups, Aboriginal cultures are acknowledged as the first makers of bread, the first astronomers, have the earliest evidence of religious beliefs and practices, were the creators of the oldest still standing man-made structure (the Brewarrina fish traps), and more other firsts that I could list here in under 1000 words. Importantly though, to focus only on ‘firsts’ is to make a grave mistake with how we view the significance of our own cultures and other cultures around the world.
As Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis once wrote, “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”
When my brother first started university he had a lecturer mention, apropos of nothing, that ‘if Aboriginal people have not been invaded by the British they would just about now be inventing the wheel’. This is of course a grossly unprovable statement, but it reveals a commonly held misconception, an outdated and abandoned throwback of 19th century thinking, the idea of unilineal evolution.
This idea was based on a belief that Western society represented the pinnacle of human achievement, and that all other cultures could be placed on a single line of progress or evolution, from ‘primitive’ or ‘stone aged’ cultures through to Western society at the top. An extension of this belief was that, given enough time, all other cultures would eventually reach the same milestones. The most common throwback to this belief is tied to the invention of the wheel as being a significant definer of cultural achievement.
The fact that Aboriginal cultures ‘never invented the wheel’ is misunderstood by many people, and is often used to argue that Aboriginal cultures are ‘primitive’, rather than understanding that Aboriginal cultures were not further behind on a single path of progress, but were on an entirely different path altogether.
As Bruce Pascoe once wrote “no, we didn’t invent the wheel…or the jail, or the rack, boiling oil, or instruments to pluck out fingernails, white collar crime; there were a lot of things we didn’t invent.”
Sadly, many Australians have never been able to explore Aboriginal cultures outside of a deficit model that looks for what Aboriginal society didn’t do and so have never been able to appreciate all the things that we did do. And because many of us inadvertently spend so much time trying to validate our value against the backdrop of this denigration, we all too often focus on what we did ‘first’ or ‘better’ rather than looking at what we did differently. Much of which 'modern societies’ are only now fumbling around the edges of trying to understand and attain.
Environmental sustainability; not being in a state of perpetual war; not needing to exploit others for resources and labour; equitable wealth and resource distribution; but even this is not the true lens through which other cultures should be viewed, because the true value of Aboriginal cultures is not simply how its practices and philosophies can assist others with the challenges they now face.
The true value of other cultures is intrinsic. They have their own value outside of what they offer others. No culture is now or has ever been perfect, and the diversity of the world’s cultures should not be viewed as a competitive sport or as a smorgasbord where you get to pick your favourite pieces for yourself and overlook the rest.
The term ‘continuous culture’ should be a source of pride, but it is also a concept that needs to be unpacked. Viewed through the wrong lens it can also be seen to suggest that because we had a ‘continuous culture’ for over 60,000 years that there were no changes, no adaptations, no innovations, and was not influenced by individuals of great talent and skill. Aboriginal cultures in Australia maintained certain consistencies, but we also know that it survived through significant periods of change and needed to be able to grow and to adapt to survive and thrive in these changing environments.
It seems we are likely entering a period where these outdated, unscientific, and blindly racist attitudes seem likely to reappear with renewed strength and political power. If so, it becomes even more important that those of us who disagree with the idea of turning Australia into a mono-culture can raise the level of our gaze beyond just responding to attempts to denigrate other cultures. Even though science disproved the very premise of this many years ago, it still holds weight in popular belief.
We must not only embrace and celebrate the strengths that multiculturalism offers, but we must better understand the frameworks which still shape how many people view other cultures, and we must strive to highlight it. If we are going to celebrate the fact that Aboriginal cultures are the oldest living cultures on earth, then we need to understand what that means and all the amazing things it contains over tens of thousands of years of exploration and expression of the human spirit.