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Aboriginal people – how to misunderstand their science

Just one generation ago Australian schoolkids were taught that Aboriginal people couldn’t count beyond five, wandered the desert scavenging for food, had no civilisation, couldn’t navigate and peacefully…

We still have so much to learn about Aboriginal history and culture. Shutterstock/John Austin

Just one generation ago Australian schoolkids were taught that Aboriginal people couldn’t count beyond five, wandered the desert scavenging for food, had no civilisation, couldn’t navigate and peacefully acquiesced when Western Civilisation rescued them in 1788.

How did we get it so wrong?

Australian historian Bill Gammage and others have shown that for many years land was carefully managed by Aboriginal people to maximise productivity. This resulted in fantastically fertile soils, now exploited and almost destroyed by intensive agriculture.

In some cases, Aboriginal people had sophisticated number systems, knew bush medicine, and navigated using stars and oral maps to support flourishing trade routes across the country.

They mounted fierce resistance to the British invaders, and sometimes won significant military victories such as the raids by Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy.

Australian aborigines knew more about tides than Galileo Galilei (engraving from about 1662). Iryna1 / Shutterstock.com

Only now are we starting to understand Aboriginal intellectual and scientific achievements.

The Yolngu people, in north eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, long recognised how the tides are linked to the phases of the moon.

Back in the early 17th century, Italian scientist Galileo Galilei was still proclaiming, incorrectly, that the moon had nothing to do with tides.

Some Aboriginal people had figured out how eclipses work, and knew how the planets moved differently from the stars. They used this knowledge to regulate the cycles of travel from one place to another, maximising the availability of seasonal foods.

Why are we only finding this out now?

We owe much of our knowledge about pre-European contact Aboriginal culture to the great anthropologists of the 20th century. Their massive tomes tell us much about Aboriginal art, songs and spirituality, but are strangely silent about intellectual achievements.

They say very little about Aboriginal understanding of how the world works, or how they navigated. In anthropologist Adolphus Elkin’s 1938 book The Australian Aborigines: How to Understand Them he appears to have heard at least one songline (an oral map) without noting its significance.

[…] its cycle of the hero’s experiences as he journeyed from the north coast south and then back again north […] now in that country, then in another place, and so on, ever coming nearer until at last it was just where we were making the recording.

How could these giants of anthropology not recognise the significance of what they had been told?

The answer dawned on me when I gave a talk on Aboriginal navigation at the National Library of Australia, and posed this same question to the audience.

Afterwards, one of Elkin’s PhD students told me that Elkin worked within fixed ideas about what constituted Aboriginal culture. I realised she was describing what the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn referred to when he coined the term “paradigm”.

The paradigm problem

According to Kuhn, all of us (even scientists and anthropologists) are fallible. We grow up with a paradigm (such as “Aboriginal culture is primitive”) which we accept as true. Anything that doesn’t fit into that paradigm is dismissed as irrelevant or aberrant.

Only 200 years ago, people discussed whether Aboriginal people were “sub-human”. Ideas change slowly, and the underlying message lingers on, long after it has been falsified.

As late as 1923 Aboriginal Australians were described as “a very primitive race of people”.

Not so primitive

The prevailing paradigm in Elkin’s time was that Aboriginal culture was primitive, and Aboriginal people couldn’t possibly say anything useful about how to manage the land, or how to navigate.

Aboriginal culture is more than just cave painting and artwork. We need to learn more about their scientific knowledge. Kitch Bain

So an anthropologist might study the Aboriginal people as objects, just as a biologist might study insects under a microscope, but would learn nothing from Aboriginal people themselves.

Even now, the paradigm lives on. In my experience, well-educated white Australians, trying so hard to be politically correct, often still seem to find it difficult to escape their childhood image of “primitive” Aboriginal people.

We must overcome the intellectual inertia that keeps us in that old paradigm, stopping us from recognising the enormous contribution that Aboriginal culture can make to our understanding of the world, and to our attempts to manage it.

As Thomas Kuhn said:

[…] when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them.

Still to learn

In recent years, it has become clear that traditional Aboriginal people knew a great deal about the sky, knew the cycles of movements of the stars and the complex motions of the sun, moon and planets.

There is even found a sort of “Aboriginal Stonehenge”, that points to the sunset on midsummers day and midwinters day. And I suspect that this is only the tip of the iceberg of Aboriginal astronomy.

So in the debate about whether our schools should include Aboriginal perspectives in their lessons, I argue that kids studying science today could also learn much from the way that pre-contact Aboriginal people used observation to build a picture of the world around them.

This “ethno-science” is similar to modern science in many ways, but is couched in appropriate cultural terms, without expensive telescopes and particle accelerators.

So if you want to learn about the essence of how science works, how people learn to solve practical problems, the answer may be clearer in an Aboriginal community than in a high-tech laboratory.

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357 Comments sorted by

  1. harry oblong

    tree surgeon

    a paradigm .isn't that a word like" convention" that always makes me laugh ?

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    1. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to harry oblong

      Sadly yes. Liker many words which originally had a very specific meaning, this one's become a tired old cliche. Here I'm using it in its original sense.

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    2. Gayle Kenny

      University Liaison

      In reply to harry oblong

      'Paradigm' is a technical word in philosophy of science . It indicates the conceptual scheme within which we work. It both delimits as well as liberates certain thought patterns, concepts or ideas . Some concepts, such as 'primitive aboriginal culture' might have had a place in early conceptual schemes because the western paradigm was one of 'progress' from the primitive to the 'advanced western white culture', and find no place in another, e.g., the one being currently proposed by the author of this article. New facts cause 'anomalies' in the paradigm and the scheme has to be re-invented to accommodate recalcitrant facts, say of of aboriginal knowledge, which appears to have been somewhat more sophisticated than our own, especially in terms of land management.

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    3. Thomas Barrett

      Unofficial providore

      In reply to Graeme Smith

      In my experience, paradigm is the word used by university types in place of model.

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    4. Michael Paton

      Honorary Associate School of Economics at University of Sydney

      In reply to Thomas Barrett

      According to historians of philosophy of science, Kuhn himself used paradigm in at least slightly different four ways, one of which was model. He was an academic, so I suppose that made him a 'university type'.

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  2. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Why does it seem then that the aborigine culture "seems" never to have progressed?

    When other cultures and societies either progressed (if that is the right word), or disappeared.

    Elsewhere hunter gathers evolved toward more sophisticated communities with commerce and education.

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    1. Gary Luke
      Gary Luke is a Friend of The Conversation.

      thoroughly disgusted

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      The author's example of tides give us the clue why it didn't progress. Aborigines observed the correlation between moon phases and tides but had no idea about gravity's role in the cause and effect. I'm surprised the chief research scientist of the CSIRO considers this an example of scientific endeavor. Galileo also know the correlation through observation but his genius was in attempting to discover why it occurred. His explanation was incorrect but his methods weren't. That's the science part.

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    2. William Clarke-Hannford

      Student

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Guns Germs and Steel does a decent job of explain why Australia didn't advance in ways like Europe or China. It basically comes down to geography. No livestock or crops like there was in Europe and not much area the had ideal Mediterranean climate to support dense population that gives rise to cities and support a small elite in philosophy and the like.

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    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Gary Luke

      take your point......

      For what ever reasons I think many people want to elevate the aborigine culture beyond what it was and is.

      That is not to say it is better or worse than any culture in a contemporaneous situation, but probably that the culture was and still is relatively simple.

      And don't bother getting all emotional about the word "simple:.

      What I mean is that there wasn't and hasn't been any progression in science (as we know it), commerce (as we know it), or education beyond rudimentary knowledge.

      I know the landscape is changing, and has changed markedly over the past few decades. But whether the idea of "western" progress is a model for success, remains to be seen.

      Of course there are many aborigines (mostly urban) who have taken up western culture and been very successful in adapting to and within that culture.

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    4. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Rowena Wormald

      I did read that book, but was not convinced by many of JDs ideas or theories. I don't think he has much to offer in any of his books.

      And I am not equating "simple" with intelligence.

      The "west" is supposedly an intelligent culture, but many would argue that clever is a better word.

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    5. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to William Clarke-Hannford

      If we look at migration throughout the world, we find that many races/tribes/societies moved to where the living was easier - for what ever reasons.

      There would have much arable land in the southern areas of Australia capable of sustaining a large aboriginal population.

      I don't think geography is a good enough idea to use an as argument.

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    6. William Clarke-Hannford

      Student

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      As someone who live on a farm in the east, topsoil isn't that great and can be long periods of little rain. And without crops and livestock then most or all people will be spending time gathering food or hunting rather than specialising completely into one profession or trade. It was till Europeans came that farming occured in the East of Aus and even then it can be a struggle and they need support from England to survive.

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    7. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to William Clarke-Hannford

      You are commenting on the situation today, it may have been a whole lot better thousands of years ago.

      The climate and vegetation would have allowed for a significant range of crop/food growing, and a far greater proliferation of animal species for food.

      You seem to be saying that the aborigines of the time had no nous for survival outside of their historic environment.

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    8. William Clarke-Hannford

      Student

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      They still would of needed herd animals they could domesticate like cows but that wasn't available in Australia and no plants either that they could of turned into crops.

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    9. William Clarke-Hannford

      Student

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Not saying they would of had know time outside of survival but there could not be a group within the tribe that could specialise in farming with crops while others just did astronomy or building or art only or politics, et cetera

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    10. William Clarke-Hannford

      Student

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Even back then I don't think the topsoil was that deep and Australia is an old land without recent volcanic material to replenish soil minerals. That and no crops or plants that could of been potential crops means then that higher populations can't be supported which lead to more complex political systems, writing and et cetera.

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    11. William Clarke-Hannford

      Student

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Geography to other land comes to it as well, since east coast of Australia is quite isolated, it was difficult for rice or wheat or cattle to arrive there before Europeans.

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    12. Pat Moore

      gardener

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      The need for agriculture would not have arisen in a low population, racially coherent, year round amenable climate (in most cases) teeming with a variety of bush foods for the (respectful and limited) taking. The Hopevale whtiefella instigated banana plantation recently flattened by cyclone Ita, a good illustration of why these gatherer hunters didn't digress into agriculture?

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    13. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to William Clarke-Hannford

      There's sometimes a misunderstanding about the role of agriculture. You don't move from being a hunter-gatherer to being a farmer in order to get an easy life! It's estimated that a hunter-gatherer works typically about 4 hours each day to feed him/herself, while an agriculturalist takes about 8 hours per day. What agriculture offers you is not an easy life, but the ability to support more people per hectare, so you can grow a larger population. Which can be a major factor if you are competing (i.e. fighting) with rival groups.

      In Britain, the longevity of a male was about 50-60 before the Bronze Age, then dropped to 30-40 once agriculture came in, and didn't get back to its pre-agriculture level until medieval times.

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    14. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Ray Norris

      The belittling of aboriginal culture by early European settlers says more about them than the aborigines.

      Probably there was the usual heathen/savage judgement made by the (mainly (English).

      Most early tribes/societies had complex hierarchical systems that had developed over thousands of years.

      From my point of view it's not what science they had, but how little "progress" was made with it.

      To me the real question is was the lack of progress deliberate, inherent or other?

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    15. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to William Clarke-Hannford

      See above. Pre-contact Aboriginal people *did* have varieties of grasses that were cropped. Kangaroos aren't easily herded but they are certainly good eating and respond productively to good husbandry (as in firestick farming).

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    16. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to William Clarke-Hannford

      Native rices were being cultivated by Aboriginal people - see p.38 of Bruce Pasco's book "Dark Emu"

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    17. Sebastian Poeckes

      Retired

      In reply to Ray Norris

      It's also worth revisiting Geoffrey Blainey's "Triumph of the Nomads" to get an overview of the range of technologies and organizations used by Aboriginal people to live well in a changeable and capricious land.

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    18. Sebastian Poeckes

      Retired

      In reply to Ray Norris

      I wish I could recall the links to analysis of a mathematician which demonstrated that the system of moieties, kinship systems and skin groups used in the NW of Western Australia acted to maximise the genetic diversity available to a relatively small breeding population.

      Perhaps another commenter may be able to provide the links.

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    19. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Sebastian Poeckes

      Agreed - thanks for raising that.

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    20. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Sebastian Poeckes

      Thanks Sebastian. I don't know of that work, but I do know that someone did something similar for the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land - the reference escapes me right now. I would be very interested to hear if anybody knows the reference to the work in NW WA.

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    21. Gary Luke
      Gary Luke is a Friend of The Conversation.

      thoroughly disgusted

      In reply to Ray Norris

      "Sorry Gary but you've got it the wrong way round. For example, Galileo's (completely wrong) model ignored the observational data (e.g. his model gave one tide a day when anyone could have told him there were 2 tides a day) whilst the Yolngu model correctly described the data, and given the evidence available to them, gave a correct description of the tides with predictive power."

      Galileo's efforts was one stage in a long thread of a particular style of enquiry and understanding. It's not reasonable…

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    22. Gary Luke
      Gary Luke is a Friend of The Conversation.

      thoroughly disgusted

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      "For what ever reasons I think many people want to elevate the aborigine culture beyond what it was and is.
      "That is not to say it is better or worse than any culture in a contemporaneous situation, but probably that the culture was and still is relatively simple."

      The article is about science, not a comprehensive review of Aboriginal culture. I reckon their science was fairly primitive (or simple), discovering correlations that assisted in food gathering and navigation. Their cultural lores in a few areas was far more sophisticated than our European traditions - family relationships for instance. And rules of payback for offences.

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    23. John Bond

      Dsability worker

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Hi Ray, great article. Got Bill Gammage's 'Biggest estate' at the library pre-Easter and am busting to read it. In Dec 2010, was amazed to read of Prof Scott Mooney's (paleontologist, UNSW) research into Aboriginal firestick practices in which he concludes, based on the charcoal record, that fire was almost entirely down to European activity. It was a grenade rolled into the public domain, yet it prompted no debate, then or since. I have long thirsted for some authoritative comment. Able to oblige? Cheers, JB

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    24. Susan Nolan

      retired

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Well - I suppose it depends what you mean by progress.

      There are other hunter-gatherers that were still hunter-gatherers well into the 20th century, for example the Kalahari bushmen.

      But, more importantly, why would you think that aboriginal culture did/does not include education and commerce?

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    25. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Susan Nolan

      By commerce, I was more referring to trade with other nations, bartering with other native fiefdoms. There don't appear to be trade routes or market centres.

      I'm assuming that there was not one cohesive aborigine nation across the continent.

      Education - schools, universities. The Greeks established schools, the Arabs countries established universities.
      If there was science as seems to be the assumption here, then was it taught?

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    26. Sebastian Poeckes

      Retired

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      No, no cohesive "Aboriginal Nation", but fairly well defined routes/sites for cultural exchange between well separated groups. However, whether the arrangements for reciprocal exchange could be called "commerce" is a moot point. The discharge of mutual obligations often involved the transport of goods over surprisingly long distances. Not necessarily in one hop, however, most likely as a series of intermediate short range exchanges. For example, Mt William stone was prized across the SE as a premium…

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    27. Sean Mitchell

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Hi!
      I find your response ill informed, Steven. The more you dig, you may find that Indigenous culture was highly developed in a ceremonial sense, and that ceremony was used to transmit knowledge, so much so that a lot of young people call ceremony bush university.
      "Progress", of course, as measured by a Western yardstick (non-objective) is just one way of measuring cultural sophistication. Indeed it would appear you are verging on a social darwinism construct that is both outdated and highly…

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    28. William Clarke-Hannford

      Student

      In reply to Ray Norris

      I don't think I was saying it was easy for the farmer, maybe I could of worded my response better, but my point was the extra food from farming can support political class and other groups that don't have spend time hunting and gathering. Competing with rivals is a good explanation for why tribes had to take up farming even though it's harder work. I had read or watched a documentary about that, and I only remembered the question that was asked why did people first take up farming

      Remarkable the amount I Aboriginal history I don't know, a lot more complexity and depth than I was ever taught. I had not even considered before what Aboriginal culture knew of astronomy, something I'd include into lessons if I do teach that part of science. Thanks for the book recommendation, I had heard about "The Biggest Estate on Earth" before but not of "Dark Emu" so both on my to read list now.

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    29. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Sean Mitchell

      I think you'll find that a lot of the "ceremonial" sense you talk about is in relation to myth and "magic".

      Nothing wrong with that, current religion has made an art form of it.
      Think of the imposing costumes, the high end verses and sermons that deliver faith and inspiration. The incense, the sense of majesty. The offer of an afterlife.

      Science can be whatever you choose it to be. So if over millennia the observation of tides and moon is made, is it a science?

      I believe you want in your…

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    30. Bron Larner

      Retired Humantities

      In reply to Susan Nolan

      I understand relatively long tradelines involving nicotine-containing plants did exist. There's an excellent blog somewhere on this. If I remember correctly, the substances were traded as far as Indonesia. Just do a search along the lines nicotine-Aboriginal-prehistoric trade ......

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    31. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to John Bond

      No I'm afraid I'm not an expert in that area, but it is certainly contrary to a great deal of evidence (as cited in Gammage's book, and books by Tim Flannery etc) that puts the dates of extensive fire thousands of ears earlier. I'm surprised nobody has responded to Mooney's claims. Does anyone else know of an infomed discussion of this?

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    32. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Ray Norris

      "Only 200 years ago, people discussed whether Aboriginal people were “sub-human“. Ideas change slowly, and the underlying message lingers on, long after it has been falsified."

      A demurrer, Ray. The idea that Aboriginal culture and people were 'sub-human' was advocated by Isaac Isaacs at the Australasian Constitutional Conventions in the 1890s. His strong advocacy successfully disenfranchised Aborigines when the Constitution became law in 1901 even though South Australia had granted voting rights to Aborigines in 1892.

      Then in about 1905, sitting alone as Isaacs CJ of the Australian High Court, he denied the appeal for voting rights from a disenfranchised SA Aborigine, that resulted in the state sponsored genocidal polices enforced by state and federal governments until the 1969 Referendum and the 1975 Racial Discrimination ACT.

      The historic irony is that Isaacs was Jewish.

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    33. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      C'mon Stephen ... why is wage slavery capitalism a good model for any society??

      Certainly, in a climate that snows for six months, collective food production makes good sense for survival, but having a lazy good for nothing 'lord' or 'socially dysfunctional royalty' as has evolved in Britain and Europe is simply foolhardy.

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    34. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to William Clarke-Hannford

      The only people who 'starved' in Sydney Cove in 1788-89 were the English officers who refused to eat local game species and fish from the Harbour, preferring to ration their bully beef and ship's biscuits to maintain the English traditions while waiting for re-supply.

      The rest depends on how you define 'farming' ... as an activity in enclosed land or as gathering native production?

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    35. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to William Clarke-Hannford

      William ... get out into the country and learn something about bush foods. There is a rich record going back to the early explorer's accounts of farming by Aboriginals. Sturt was 'rescued' by a band of about 400 Aborigines who were 'farming' grass seed crops in Central Australia.

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    36. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to William Clarke-Hannford

      Oh dear ... uhm William ... have you heard about hydroponics ... soil is basically irrelevant for plant growth and only provides an anchor point of attachment for the seed.

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    37. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to William Clarke-Hannford

      Oh dear ... William ... the Incas, even more remote from European agricultural practices, used quinoa, the seed of a chenopod as the basic seed grain for their society. Different grasses form the basis of about six Eurasian societies, but grasses are not the exclusive food starch basis for societies, as Polynesian food is based on taro.

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    38. Tim Preston

      Designer

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Progress to what? If you have a sustainable lifestyle with food enough, instructive world view, and deep culture that ensures all this for infinite generations, what else do you need?

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    39. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Susan Nolan

      Hi Susan ... what is the basis for this claim// Surely, the song lines are an oral form of education and there likely would have been a barter system that is usually considered to pre-date a monetary system.

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    40. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Hi Stephen

      I should perhaps just preface my remarks by saying that I'm not making any political statement or trying to build up Aboriginal culture into something more than it is. I'm a scientist who is surprised that what used to be taught in schools is so different from what the evidence tells us. So I'm trying to correct the record. The danger in that is that people sometime interpret what I'm saying as being rather more than what I'm actually saying. Let me see if I can explain what I'm saying…

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    41. John Newton

      Author Journalist

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      And what do we mean by 'progress'? We've now reached a point with our culture where it is entirely possible we will wipe out human civilisation: we have polluted rivers, torn down forests and killed millions in wars.

      Is that 'progress'? Is more, more, bigger, bigger better? Is a civilisation bent on gobbling up all available resources in the name of endless growth better than a civilisation which, in my limited understanding of it, was built on balance, respect, and cycles?

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    42. John Newton

      Author Journalist

      In reply to William Clarke-Hannford

      If you read Gammage you will learn that the topsoil was considerably deeper in many parts of the country before we grazed livestock on it.

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    43. John Newton

      Author Journalist

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Ray as you well know there was no need to herd them when they were directed – by fire – to where they could be harvested.

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    44. Susan Nolan

      retired

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Yes. I agree. It seems to me that Aboriginal culture included/includes both education and commerce.

      I was asking Stephen Ralph why HE thought Aboriginal culture did not include education nor commerce.

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    45. Gayle Kenny

      University Liaison

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      You are working within the Renaissance and modern conceptual scheme of 'linear progress ' of knowledge and culture. It's a rather tired old idea.

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    46. Gayle Kenny

      University Liaison

      In reply to Gary Luke

      It depends on what you find to explain anomalies. Newton was always worried about his idea of 'gravity' being an occult one. The concept of gravity suited his purposes in explaining a whole lot of other things. In short, it was an 'elegant' solution. But the modern concept of 'gravity' as a 'cause' does not necessarily indicate that what we call gravity, is what we say it is. Aristotle's explanation for 'gravitational' effects was quite different and served just as well. Heavy, massy things were attracted to each other and so that's why things fall to earth. Other things like fire belong to the ethereal realms so that is why flames reach to the heavens. This is also an occult theory because it explains things in terms of causation as attraction of like to like.

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    47. Gayle Kenny

      University Liaison

      In reply to Ray Norris

      The conceptual scheme does not allow for this recalcitrant material to be well integrated into our idea of ourselves as progressive and civilizing. Kant the philosopher indicated the kind of thinking that we still have. it was thought justifiable to enslave people of Africa and other 'uncivilized' places because those specimens of humanity were thought not to be able to think rationally. Reason was the mark of being a human being, ergo these people were sub human and so it did not matter what we did to them. They were on a par with animals, which by the way were also treated as subservient to our own interests, to do with as we liked.

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    48. Gayle Kenny

      University Liaison

      In reply to Ray Norris

      People have the idea that scientific theories are initially built on the basis of empirical observation. They are not. What Galileo's work showed however, is that science starts with an hypothesis or theory first, and then sees if the observations work within the conceptual structure of the theory. Which makes the aboriginal knowledge somewhat remarkable and wonderful. It works and is not gained by way of western scientific methodology.

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    49. john tons

      retired redundant

      In reply to Susan Nolan

      It does seem as if part of this thread is locked into a paradigm all of its own - the enlightenment progress paradigm - many cultures, Aboriginal included, do not fit into that paradigm and as a result are summarily dismissed. All societies and cultures progress - for the alternative is extinction; but that sort of progress is better understood as an ongoing process of responding and adjusting to changing conditions.

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    50. Gayle Kenny

      University Liaison

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Doesn't look too clever to me at the moment. At least the 'simple' culture of the indigenous people never threatened the entire sustainability of the natural world.

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    51. Gayle Kenny

      University Liaison

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      So maybe they did not have to form warrior cultures to fight for and retain land and resources. The living was good as it was.

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    52. Gayle Kenny

      University Liaison

      In reply to William Clarke-Hannford

      The reason why astronomy or other activities wer eable to be pursued in the Fertile Crescent was because food could be stored and traded and so people did not have to spend all their time hunter gathering. There was a class of leisured people.

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    53. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      I think you're on the right track in questioning the Western idea of "progress," as have many ecological philosophers. The concept stems from an idea that there is something wrong with our original condition as wild ecological participants and something better about our goal of being "masters of the universe" (as Val Plumwood was fond of calling it). For a lot of people the cracks have begun to appear in that edifice of progress; not only are we beginning to see our slaves now as morally considerable…

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    54. Peter Hindrup

      consultant

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Is it the definition of 'progress' that may be the answer.

      We certainly have a lot of 'junk' that was beyond being dreamt of when I was a boy, and it could be argued that there has been a great deal of 'progress' in the past hundred and twenty years, but to what end?

      Are we better off, are we living more contented lives?

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    55. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Benjamin Ratcliff

      Benjamin, some Botany 100 notes ... soil holds plants in a single location, while there, plant roots extract dissolved mineral nutrients from passing water. If plants are grown in water only and suitable mechanical support is provided, plants will grow as 'normal' without soil. This technology is known as hydroponics. Here endeth the lesson.

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    56. Amanda Barnes
      Amanda Barnes is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Voter

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Geography is precisely the argument. Indigenous Australians are intrinsically linked to their land, & by that I mean their specific geographical wanderings. Their stories, lores, & laws are all interwoven with their geographical sense of place. In West Arnhem land the physical area is rich with evidence of wonderful visual links on their rock platforms & caves. Evidence of interaction & trade with people from other lands & a yet a deep sense of belonging to place with generations of individual's hands overlapping with their forebears. You can't take country out of an indigenous person. To do so causes the deepest hurt imaginable.

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    57. Amanda Barnes
      Amanda Barnes is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Voter

      In reply to Ray Norris

      It took me a while to understand kinship avoidance systems. Once I got my head around it I realised how incredibly ingenious it was & is. Nieces, to this day, cannot talk directly to any kin of the opposite sex who belong to the same skin group. What a clever system to stop accidental attractions that could potentially foul the blood line. Simply amazing. Some of you may have seen it in action when you have seen an indigenous person shouting out something to no one in particular & been perplexed. Yet, it is part of this complex avoidance system. A wonderfully rich people who we ignore to our detriment.

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    58. Paul Prociv

      ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Ray, this is not my field, but way back in 1972, while working in Canberra, I met a palynologist (can't recall his name) from either CSIRO or ANU who was doing pioneering work, studying core samples taken from lakes in the Atherton Tableland (I think it might have been Lake Barrine). He told me that they were finding evidence of massive soot deposits from about 30-40,000 years ago, below which were pollens from rainforest species and above which were pollens from fire-resistant trees, mainly eucalypts. No doubt this would have been published at some stage. His tentative conclusion then was that early human invaders had totally changed the environment by extensive burning.

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    59. David Keir

      Business Owner

      In reply to William Clarke-Hannford

      Major Mitchell writes in his diary of pulling his cart through Western Victoria, and of the wheels digging down through soil dug by digging sticks, pulling up yam daisies with every turn.

      The soil we are used to is post clearing, post cattle, post rabbits.

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    60. Benjamin Ratcliff

      Nurse

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      so if plants get ...'dissolved mineral nutrients'... they'll grow without soil...

      and don't 'dissolved mineral nutrients' naturally come from soil, rather than rain clouds?

      Is 'Botany 100' a brand of fertiliser?

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    61. Raine S Ferdinands

      Education at Education

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Could it be because we've robed them of everything, and even deliberately refused them their language and culture? Could it be that we marked their culture as 'taboo' and even made the young ones embarrassed for being aboriginal? Why haven't they progressed? Ha!
      "..there are many aborigines (mostly urban) who have taken up western culture and been very successful in adapting to and within that culture." … there in lies the bias and a conditioned view of what is deemed as "successful …".
      Ah … after all the numerous discussions and enlightening articles here … we still are unable to see the light nor the reasons behind aboriginal deprivation and recognition.
      Perhaps it all ties down to economic power … until they achieve this, we'll continue to ignore and deny them their land, culture and knowledge. We've done well for ourselves, haven't we?

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    62. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      "Why does it seem then that the aborigine culture "seems" never to have progressed?
      When other cultures and societies either progressed (if that is the right word), or disappeared."

      It seems to me that the difference is in one developing a stable, sustainable culture and others becoming unsustainable or extinct by calling it 'progress'.

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    63. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Thanks for that Jack. And of course we cannot forget Rolf Harris's memorable line in "Tie me kangaroo down, sport" which is: "Let me abo's go loose, they're of no further use". I find it amazing that a public figure could write that in the supposedly enlightened 1960's! Ideas linger on for a *very* long time!

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    64. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Gayle Kenny

      Sorry Gayle, but I beg to differ about the way that science works. It is not the case that theoreticians pluck ideas out of thin air, and that these ideas are then tested against observation and experiment. It's rather more of a chicken-and-egg thing: ideas are inspired by observation/experiment, and then observations/experiments test and hone them, leading to further ideas, and so on. Galileo's ideas were inspired by what he saw around him. Ideas of dark energy are inspired by discrepant supernova observations.

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    65. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Amanda Barnes

      You're right - it's a fantastic testament to human ingenuity that people could devise such a system to maximise genetic diversity. And all through a process of 50,000 years of cultural evolution, presumably. It would be wonderful to be able to take snapshots of the system evolving over time.

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    66. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      Thanks for that - knowing that work exists will help me find the reference.

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    67. Lorraine Muller

      PhD - eternal student

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Bill Gammage's book is a must read for those who want to know more than they were taught about Aboriginal people in year 5 at school.
      Once the search starts there are numerous accounts that challenge common misconceptions of history.
      This is a solid article, that hopefully will be built on in the coming years.

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    68. Matt Stevens

      Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

      In reply to Sebastian Poeckes

      And when that didn't work, just do a raid on the neighbouring tribe and steal some women! Oh, and then have a fight about, also known as payback in today's lingo. Oh, and a spear in the leg generally meant a death sentence for a nomad...

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    69. Matt Stevens

      Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

      In reply to Gary Luke

      It was all about rules and Law - you broke the law and you paid for it, usually with a death sentence.

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    70. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      Thanks Russell Edwards.
      I want to share also this new ABC Radio National Philosophers Zone program on internationally–great Australian philosophers Val Plumwood (Routley) and Richard Sylvan (Routley) (who you referred to above):→http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/philosopherszone/australian-philosophers-richard-sylvan-and-val-plumwood/5398044
      I’m keenly waiting for when i have time today or tomorrow to fully listen to this.
      All the best.

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    71. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jason Stewart

      Thanks so much Jason, I can't wait to listen to it now, either!

      (I also notice a lot of other references in your other comments that look interesting.)

      If you're interested in a more explicit link between aboriginal worldviews and Val Plumwood's ideas, if you're interested, see Deborah Bird Rose, "Val Plumwood's Philosophical Animism", http://environmentalhumanities.org/arch/vol3/3.5.pdf

      Best wishes.

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    72. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      Thanks Russell, please keep sharing any more, i’ve read that one by Deborah Bird Rose, and many more of her good works. I like to quote her excellent passages from Decolonising … .

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    73. alan w. shorter

      research assistant

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Ray are you arguing that Galileo ignored the data collected by the Yolngu? How would Galileo have ever been exposed to the Yolngu data in the first place?

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    74. alan w. shorter

      research assistant

      In reply to Ray Norris

      "I am not claiming particle accelerators." But you are ignoring Galileo's telescope, which kinda refutes your claim that Galileo ignored empirical observations. If a telescope is not for making empirical observations, I don't know what is. I know quite a bit about Aboriginal epistemology and knowledge of nature, which we were taught in Year 3 at school, despite what you say. I don't recall any Yolngu observations of new moons orbiting Jupiter, sunspots, or the transit of Venus. Galileo 4, Yolngu 0.

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    75. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gayle Kenny

      All research points to the opposite, Gayle- that the introduction of agriculture reduced average leisure time and life expectancy. It's only the social inequality that came along with it that enabled the division of labour (or vice versa?) such that a chosen few were fed and housed without the expectation of doing any socially or ecologically useful work. A system that persists to this day.

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    76. Sandor von Kontz

      farmer

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Thanks you Ray, until now I was never able toanswer this question satisfactionally, but used the excuse of, there was no need or motivation for them to advance but of course it was the dominant paradigm that advance was where we went to which made me blind to your explanation. Even Gammage did not open my eys as clearly as you did than.

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    77. alan w. shorter

      research assistant

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Ray, Diamond mentions all of that and more. He goes into explicit detail about the canals for eel farming, fire-stick farming, and many other instances of land management, including archeological evidence of stone housing. But what he does do is make clear that each of these incidents were exceptional. He also gives the much broader context, and explains that even though many Aboriginal communities might have been on their way to full on farming, they were nowhere near there yet when the British arrived. One obvious reason being, of course, that even if Australia did have sufficient diversity of domesticable plants (it didn't), there were no animals to domesticate. Farming was never really on the cards.

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    78. John Saint-Smith

      Concerned Citizen

      In reply to Ray Norris

      But not, according to this article, if we were aboriginal. Can we ever reach a balance, somewhere between denigration and deification?

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    79. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Tim Preston

      Thanks Tim, your response to Stephen says it all - what good is Western "progress" if it passes the costs of the behaviour of the adults of today onto the kids of today and tomorrow?

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    80. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to alan w. shorter

      The trouble with a conversation like this is that I'm sometimes asked to defend something I didn't say! As I said above, Galileo was a great scientist - arguably the father of modern science. I stand in awe of him and I'm really not knocking him! But we all screw up sometimes, and Galileo must have been having a bad day (or a bad paradigm!) when he chose to ignore the tidal data which was readily available to him, because it didn't fit his model. He even criticised ideas that the Moon may be connected…

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    81. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to alan w. shorter

      Diamond's book was a great read and provokes critical thinking about these things, but I'm sure Diamond would agree that he doesn't necessarily expect you to agree with every word. As you say, Alan, these things aren't so black and white. So it's clear, I think, that 200 years ago the Aboriginal economy depended on both agriculture and hunter-gatherer approaches, and one or the other might be more appropriate in some parts of the country than others. I'm really not taking Diamond to task (well, not…

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    82. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to John Saint-Smith

      You may notice, John, that the vast majority of people in this conversation argue sensibly and rationally, regardless of which side of the debate they're on. I *love* arguing with people who disagree with me sensibly and rationally with evidence-based arguments. Neither deification nor denigration have any place in this conversation.

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    83. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Ray (hi, by the way - for a while we worked under the same roof) - by deification and denigration do you mean the passing of value judgements? You open your article by problematising other people's value judgements, so I assume you do actually think value judgements are important.

      Don't forget, unlike scientific theory, with value judgement there's an extra layer of much greater subjectivity there - the set of criteria used to turn presumed facts into value. You can argue the evidence and the…

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    84. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      Hi Russell- good to chat with you.

      What I'm really saying in the first paragraph is that (a) people present as evidence things that are laden with value judgements, and also happen to be incorrect, and (b) even when those things are demonstrably incorrect, the myth lives on in the face of conflicting evidence.

      I try not to make value judgements, which really have no place in science. OTOH I'm a fallible human being and occasionally my value judgments may leak through my otherwise evidence-based arguments. I cant pretend this doesn't happen, but I can try to correct it when it does happen.

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    85. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Rowena Wormald

      Jarred Diamond was wrong about many things in Guns, Germs and Steel—both wrong about evidence details and about big picture theories.
      I’m a field botanist and out of the more than 20,000 native Australian species of plants, many were excellently sustainably domesticated and more plant spp. again have fabulous suitability for sustainable further domestication. Two examples out of hundreds of spp. examples should suffice, ever heard of the genus Oryza?—get back to me if you haven’t—Jarred Diamond…

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    86. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to alan w. shorter

      It did!
      It does.
      It has many more 'sustainably domesticated' and further 'sustainably domesticable' plant species than many other parts of the whole world. Actually another boring, stupid colonial bigotry facet, of lies, re: stealing the land, about 'superior' ecosystems of this continent getting called "inferior" by untaught European explorers dying in ignorance amongst natures supermarkets full of food plant species—horrible ecosystem bigotry.
      Ever heard of _Oryza_?
      Ever heard of _Dimocarpus_?
      Two key examples should suffice (unless i’m taking on pure hate speech—i hope not), out of four thousand officially recorded First Australians’ native food plant species, some sustainably domesticated, some further species able to be sustainably domesticated nowadays, some majority of the 4,000 spp. not suitable for human domestication.

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    87. Stephen N. Green

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ray Norris

      If they did, then one must assume that it was in a very limited way, no? One good indicator would be that outlined by Cochran and Harpending in their '10,000 Year Explosion' publication regarding how the advent of widespread agricultural produce allowed those best equipped to genetically take advantage of it and be less harmed by the consequences of it to expand their share of the population. Aborigines, AFAIK, do not have the same types of telling genetic change and are also very well known for having a negative reaction to those fermented versions of grains, exemplified by their bad response to alcohol.

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    88. Brian Sandridge

      Neurologist MD

      In reply to Gary Luke

      You are exactly right, Gary. I was about to post something similar. Indeed our "paradigm" of Science is not mere empirical observation. There is an underlying impetus to organize the observed facts into explanatory theories. Theories are then tested by experimental methodology.
      I am frankly tired of post-modern western initlektchools seemingly afraid to use the words "primitive" or "savage" without quotes.

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    89. Brian Sandridge

      Neurologist MD

      In reply to Ray Norris

      The tides in the Mediterranean are not as robust as in other maritime regions. The Med. tides have an average amplitude of a few centimetres, (instead of the metre of so in the Atlantic.

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    90. Brian Sandridge

      Neurologist MD

      In reply to Rowena Wormald

      Rowena no one is making the assumption that the native people of Australia are less intelligent. However, Diamond who you cite indeed the gives an explanation for their unsophisticated societies. Hunter-gathering societies have little to no social stratification. By what standard would their society be considered sophisticated?

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    91. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Brian Sandridge

      If you don't understand why people use quotes, have a look around you at what our supposedly non-primitive, non-savage culture does to its own members, to other cultures and to the non-human world. Then ask yourself whether the other culture you wish to label as "primitive" or "savage" reaches the same depth or extent of wanton destructiveness. Then ask whether the differential value judgement attached to those words can be justified. If you're happy wearing that, then you'll use them without quotes.

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    92. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Brian Sandridge

      Stratification—LOL—ants have stratified societies—'OF INSECTS'—so do numerous other social insects—and a subset of species of social ants do agriculture of their own foods, even monoculture, haha! Untenable value judgements prove nothing, say nothing and reflect on the bad quality thought of the person saying them.

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    93. Lynne Kelly

      Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at LaTrobe University at LaTrobe University

      In reply to Brian Sandridge

      There is no society which has "little or no" social stratification. Australian Aboriginal cultures, like all the small scale oral cultures I explored in my PhD research, are stratified. Elders don't just get there by being old. Non-egalitarian features aren't formed on material possessions. Power is achieved through control of information. There are always multiple levels of initiation into esoteric knowledge. Knowledge of the natural sciences is included in an integrated system including other information.

      Things will always come out primitive if you look in oral cultures for aspects of literate culture you value. They can do the same in reverse. How many birds, insects and plants can you classify to two or three levels (usually in good agreement with Western classifications)? On that measure, most of us would be "unsophisticated" by comparison to an initiated indigenous person. Such comparisons get us nowhere.

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    94. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Jason Stewart

      "
      It is here that Diamond makes his fundamental mistake. He imagines he can triangulate his way to the deep past by assuming …


      … (see, for example, R. Brian Ferguson’s Yanomami Warfare: A Political History, a strong antidote to the pseudo-scientific account of Napoleon Chagnon on which Diamond relies heavily).


      What agrarian states needed above all else was manpower to cultivate their fields, build their monuments, man their armies and bear and raise their children. With few exceptions…

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    95. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to John Bond

      There was i key discussion i was glad to hear at the time, which i’m glad got into the depth of nuances which i know about as a field ecologist, botanist, ecological restorationist who has myself practised ecological burning since the late 1980s.
      See this page and listen to this audio:→http://www.abc.net.au/site-archive/rural/telegraph/content/2011/s3336948.htm
      ABC Radio National Bush Telegraph program: Michael McKenzie interviewing Bill Gammage right after the Oct 2011 release of his book The…

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    96. Oliver Lloyd

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ray Norris

      I'm incredibly surprised, as you are, that such historical accounts have taken so long to be written, and to reach the public sphere, especially since I would have thought that those of politically-correct ideology in the past few decades would have jumped to promote any such histories emphasising sophisticated Aboriginal civilsiation. I would have thought that in the last fifty years, social forces activating for a more nuanced approach to Aboriginal history would have been stronger than those conservative…

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    97. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Jason Stewart

      Species name spelling recall mistake correction: _Dimocarpus_australianus_.

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    98. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Stephen N. Green

      No and no.

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    99. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      "We don’t need 19th century inequality to achieve 21st century growth"
      by Thomas Clarke —Professor, Centre for Corporate Governance at University of Technology, Sydney – 28 April 2014, 3.41pm AEST
      https://theconversation.com/we-dont-need-19th-century-inequality-to-achieve-21st-century-growth-25998
      —highly topical right now! —in relation to French economist Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century —hot topic right now!
      And more related research literature.

      Confer with the 1600s–1700s…

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    100. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jason Stewart

      I must be misreading you - it seems you're trying to equate economic growth with sophistication?

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    101. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      No just sharing very topical discussion at present, partially useful discussion on evidence categorically in favour of equality. I don’t necessary agree with every point or thing that i post and discuss—i’m philosophical—and i know all too well all the evidence of the untenability and insanity of ideologies of infinite material–economic growth on our shared planet Earth, our obviously materially finite shared planet with all life as we currently know it (eg. references of the Club of Rome, the recent CSIRO affirming 30 year review of that, Rockstrom and so on and on)—the laws of physics, including of thermodynamics, etc. etc..

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    102. Brian Sandridge

      Neurologist MD

      In reply to Lynne Kelly

      Stratification is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, a member of a given culture immersed in it from birth will recognize some hierarchy. However there is an objective level of hierarchy much less robust in primitive societies.
      The differential in status, wealth, lifestyle, responsibility, and especially importance markedly rises from primitive to advanced societies.
      It is just willful ignorance to not be able to discern the far greater difference between the lawn and garden laborer on the one hand and the brain surgeon the other. Is the difference between the "lay" aborigine and his "medicine man" of the same magnitude?
      The honest answer is "absolutely not".

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    103. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Lynne Kelly

      The following deserves critique based on high quality evidence :
      http://lnkd.in/bwi64uC

      Let alone his later published pop pseudo–science books for money spinning after this above article contributed to giving him a pop name.
      The genuinely scholarly evidence based and/or science books by Hugh Brody and Joseph Tainter and many more authors leave him in the dust.
      See the following cited reliable references sources and many more (a version of these were cited here in my previous comment…

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  3. Frances Moore

    Equity Pathways Officer

    Hi Ray, thanks for your article! Can you provide any teaching resources or indicate where I could find them? With thanks Frances

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    1. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Frances Moore

      Thanks Frances. There are teaching resources, but they're scattered around. You'll find links to a few on our (Aboriginal Astronomy) web site www.emudreaming.com. If anyone else has links they'd like to recommend then please say so here, and I'll put links to them on our web page.

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  4. James Murray

    Finance

    Dear Ray,
    your article is most timely. We are embarking on a project to learn about the local indigenous view of the sky at our "reborn" observatory at Mount Burnett. and then make it an integral part of our outreach program. There is huge support amongst our membership, the local community, our Shire Councils and beyond. I just hope there is enough information left regarding the tribes to the east of Melbourne.

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    1. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to James Murray

      Thanks James. I personally don't know much about the people to the East of Melbourne, but I recommend you have a trawl through the works of Stanbridge and Massola, some of which are listed on http://www.emudreaming.com/Further_reading.htm

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  5. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Thanks Ray. This is a losing argument to launch, accumulated rich observational based knowledge passed down through millennia of generations aside. Patently the science and technology of the two cultures cannot be compared....rockets to the moon, nuclear arsenals and power generation, massive cities and skyscrapers, industries of fabrication, myriad machines, cosmos-magnifying telescopes etc etc. The ingenuity and technological sophistication of European culture is indisputable, beyond compare.....this…

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    1. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Pat Moore

      Thanks Pat. I'm not going to rise to your bait to defend Western science!

      But I will comment on your first line about not being able to compare Aboriginal and European intellectual achievements. It's important to distinguish between what I am saying and what I am not saying.

      I (along with many others) *am* saying that, contrary to some previous post-colonial assertions about "primitive Aboriginal society", Aboriginal people achieved many great things before contact, built houses, practiced…

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    2. Sebastian Poeckes

      Retired

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Why didn't Aboriginal people invent the sorts of technologies Europeans invented? They didn't need to. They could live quite well in the Australian landscapes without that level of effort.

      And it is worth noting that technologies did change over time and space across the landscape. As the environment changed so the Aborigines adapted their technologies or invented new ones.

      Though I do think it interesting (and instructive) that the contact-period Tasmanians had a more restricted and "simple" tool kit than their ancestors who lived there prior to the flooding of Bass Strait. Maybe there was another factor at play other than just environmental change - i.e. smaller interacting populations. Cultural factors may also be important. Might these help explain the dropping of fish from the Tasmanian diet?

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    3. Gary Luke
      Gary Luke is a Friend of The Conversation.

      thoroughly disgusted

      In reply to Ray Norris

      "So please don't think I'm saying all societies are equal, or making some sort of political statement. I'm just pointing out that there is strong evidence that there were a whole load of intellectual achievements in pre-contact Aboriginal society, which we whitefellas have either not recognised or ignored. And we really need to start understanding that if we are to understand anything of Aboriginal cultures."

      This is certain, but whenever anyone tries to propose an equivalent accomplishment between…

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    4. Sean Mitchell

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Sebastian Poeckes

      Seb, good post.
      Something not otherwise mentioned in the article or in the comments is the inherently conservative nature of Aboriginal culture.
      People and their choices cannot be divorced from culture, and in a culture which promotes a complex interrelational knowledge system, the effect of given actions are intimately understood across a system. People may take WEEKS to decide on one simple action, as they must consult many many stakeholders, most of whom don't have an obvious having a stake…

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    5. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Gary Luke

      They were measuring the position of the setting Sun to a degree or two, and put many man-years into doing so. That is very different from idly noticing somehing!

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    6. Matt Stevens

      Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

      In reply to Sebastian Poeckes

      They missed out on a lot because Australia is an Island on the other side of Wallace's line. Still surprising that they did not stumble across iron given many of their fires would have been build on iron ore and Australia is full of it!

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  6. Sheridan Blunt

    logged in via Twitter

    I'm currently reading Bill Gammage's The Biggest Estate, and it is really opening my mind. The principle that 'there was no wilderness' across this giant country due to close management by aborigines via fire planning, population control, food harvesting (not gathering), songlines (not written manuals), and totems (not just caring for humans) is both intricate and comprehensive.

    Its great to hear this context in relation to studies in astronomy. The text makes me wonder whether Australia's fire…

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    1. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Sheridan Blunt

      That's a very good point, Sheridan. It's a tricky question.

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  7. Sheridan Blunt

    logged in via Twitter

    And by chance, I just read the opening sentence in Victoria's Draft State Planning Policy Framework (our current songline?) and it says:

    'Before settlement of Melbourne 178 years ago, Aboriginal people occupied the land that is now called Victoria for at least 40,000 years.'

    Yep, not 'settled'. Just 'occupied'

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    1. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Jason Stewart

      Why o why did The Conversation double line space all my single line spaces?
      Spacious references reading!

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    2. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Jason Stewart

      Wow! Thank you so much - what a brilliant contribution! Would it be OK with you if I copied your links and comments (with attribution of course) to our web page where people can find your list of references more easily?

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    3. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Really glad to read your great evidence–based work, as summarised here and thanks for your reply.
      Yesterday evening writing that recompilation post of my previous references compilation was a pretty rough, rushed job, in the context of my having been privately studying these various scholarly evidences for twenty+ years.
      First I’d do a lot more work on them, typos, grammar, etc..
      I’m keen for dialogues (discourse) on specific issues of evidence ….

      Will be in touch,
      Jason.

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    4. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Jason Stewart

      There is also extensive work done by Dickens (1890s) and other botanists from the Sydney Botanic Gardens and other state gardens, the HMSO six (or more volumes) Botany of Australia and the SW Pacific (mid C20th), the chronicles of the early explorers, especially von Mueller, the Bush Tucker Man from ABC television series.

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    5. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Yep of course, thanks Jack, as i wrote: "Some of many references".

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    6. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Jason Stewart

      In particular i meant to add also:

      Memmott, Paul
      (2007)
      Gunyah Goondie + Wurley: The Aboriginal architecture of Australia
      (http://books.google.com.au/books?id=xNhsTkT6MZ8C)
      St Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press
      (http://www.uq.edu.au/news/?article=17753).
      ISBN 9780702232459; ISBN 0702232459.
      —UQ Press Description in order form (http://www.uq.edu.au/aerc/docs/Orderform.pdf)
      —Complex designs reveal country’s first architects (National news - Sydney Morning Herald) (http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/complex-designs- reveal-countrys-first-architects/2007/10/08/1191695822471.html)
      —Gunyah, Goondie + Wurley: The Aboriginal Architecture Of Australia - "The myth of a country devoid of indigenous architecture - 'architecture nullius' - has long persisted."
      (smh.com.au Book Review)
      (http://www.smh.com.au/news/book-reviews/gunyah-goondie- wurley-the-aboriginal-architecture-of-australia/2007/12/14/1197568249463.html?page=fullpage) .

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  8. Steven O'Brien

    logged in via Facebook

    I do not see how the raids by Pemulwuy could count as "significant military victories".
    His largest raid from what I read consisted of less than half the number of men in his party as the Irish convict rebellion in 1804 and aside from setting some crops alight his greatest achievement seems to have been getting shot a number of times and surviving, which - unless you believe in the supernatural - was a matter of luck rather than skill.

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    1. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Steven O'Brien

      OK try this for size: "In the early days of March in 1797, Toongabbie was the first British town to fall in battle to the Eora. ...Pemulwuy moved a force of some one hundred warriors...at dawn on 22 February they launched a vicious sustained attack on the town...Even Collins was impressed with the skill of the operation... he admitted that this amounted to a serious military action."
      (Willmott, Pemulwuy: the Rainbow Warrior, pp 200-201). Later on p206 he describes how Parramatta was abandoned to Pemulwuy's forces, and later describes the sacking of Lane Cove.

      Again, let's not overstate this - ultimately Pemulwuy and his forces were defeated by the British. But these were clearly military victories.

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    2. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Steven O'Brien

      Hi Steven & Ray, the other example was at Rushcutter Bay when a group of convicts was taken to cut rushes and were met by an Aboriginal group described as about 400 in number who were upset by the presence of the Europeans. See Manning Clark, Vol 1.

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    3. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Indeed, and furthermore on Sydney late 1700s, i especially highly recommend everybody accesses in libraries and reads:

      Lee, Emma
      (2002)
      The Tale of a Whale: Significant Aboriginal landscapes of the northern beaches.
      Dee Why, NSW: Warringah Council.
      ISBN 1875116397.

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  9. Garry Baker

    researcher

    Interesting article - Working on a science and technology thread the natives might have employed. Obviously, examining their footprints along these lines might yield quite a bit more.. I for one, think the author is thinking straight - however, the proofs have to be more certain

    As we all know the natives never left a written word, therefore interpretations made back in the colonial era, were British. For instance, Alfred Howitt (one of the references in this article) founded some very deep…

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    1. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Garry Baker

      Hi Garry ... indeed, Robinson (2 vols, Pelican?) is a key text to understand the Aboriginal policies of post Federation Australia.

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  10. Fergus Ferguson

    Political Exile

    The British had no interest in discovering or recording the culture or technology of the aboriginals. Their mission was dominance and occupation. To have recognized aboriginal ownership would have required compensation under British law. By not acknowledging that there was an existing culture the land was able to be deemed 'empty', and it was therefore available for free use.

    At the same time Australia was discovered and later settled there were veiled incidences of the use of smallpox in the…

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  11. Peter Boyd Lane

    geologist

    The sad thing is that their extensive knowledge, especially of the uses of plants (eg "The Trees that Were Nature's Gift" by Irene Cunningham) is slowly being lost. Google Earth Western Australia, see that big bare area in the SW? That's the so-called wheat belt, a huge area of extraordinary biodiversity cleared within a couple of decades and lost with it the knowledge of what was there and how it was used. We were the "simple" ones, the ones lacking inquisitiveness.
    And Jared Diamond was spot on.

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    1. James Copley

      Project Manager

      In reply to Peter Boyd Lane

      Great article Ray!! And I can't agree more Pete!
      On the agricultural front, there is no doubt that Western agricultural practices are responsible for the destruction of our planets magnificent forests, and most terrestrial and aquatic ecologies!
      Australia's SW is one of the worlds worst modern day ecological disasters, to be attributed to white man's ignorance of natural systems! It is the single largest land clearing event in our planets history (about to be overtaken in the Amazon), which is the main reason for it also being the fastest drying region on the planet!
      It's bizarre that even with this knowledge today, our State Govt is still approving more logging and clearing for farming, instead of a massive effort to re-forest!
      What a shame we didn't open our hearts and minds to the great wisdom and knowledge the aboriginal communities shared about this country's diverse ecosystems!
      Hopefully a long overdue 'paradigm' shift in our thinking isn't far away!

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    2. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Peter Boyd Lane

      Jarred Diamond was horribly wrong trying to make an impression (false) of unassailable science, out of non–credible pseudo–science and made up hyper–theses (not hypotheses)—many peer reviewed, scholarly published, genuine scientific references sources available on this message. But just see this, plain English, easy to palate like Jarred Diamond’s false work, recent BBC 4 documentary on Easter Island, recently also shown on Australian SBS:
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03srmm6
      And for more fun correcting 'the Jarred', see renowned genetics Professor Alan Templeton of Washington State University, at the 2004 international genetics conference held in Melbourne, haha to neanderthal–J., here:→https://web.archive.org/web/20050615171019/http://gsa2004.org.au/media/AT-www.theage.com.au.pdf

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    3. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Jason Stewart

      Small correction: Washington University —not my mistaken recall, of "Washington State University". Yep everyone’s fallible of course. Some people are worse than fallible, making deliberate false pseudo–science, getting it widely published and spreading its regressive propaganda. Races, and racialising, are red herrings amongst humans—there is only one, the human race.
      The Earth including all of us—its 7,000+ languages–peoples—do not need any outrageous propaganda proxies for 'races' or for 'racialism', in the jarred–form of abominable environmental–cultural–determinist, self–serving European–supremacist, horribly–overplayed, grandiose, propaganda.

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  12. Geoff Clark

    Senior Lecturer at University of Tasmania, School of Architecture and Design

    Why is it that this thread sounds as if there is a general consensus that a competency issue prevented 'development'?

    What about, for example, motivation?

    Who could possibly suggest that 'success' should be measured against OUR society, or our science?

    If you want to talk about paradigms, then let's consider whether our (isolated) science actually represents success, or an endless stream of failures.

    I think that there are other dimensions to this topic that need to be included in the discussion if it is going to be in any way enlightening.

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    1. Lawrie Grant
      Lawrie Grant is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Architect (Ret)

      In reply to Geoff Clark

      To Ray and Geoff,
      Thank you both for your thoughts.

      May I be bold and add to the discussion that we, the settler culture continue to try to understand aboriginal culture through our settler culture mind set. I think that it was WEH Stanner who suggested that aboriginal culture comes to it’s world view from an entirely unrelated construct. Case in point, and certainly relevant to discussions of “progress’ is the aboriginal understanding of time. As I understand Stanner, time in the aboriginal…

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  13. Susan Nolan

    retired

    Thanks, Ray Norris, for this interesting article together with the links to other articles. Thanks, also, to other commenters for references.

    These are going to keep me busy for years!

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  14. Mark Amey

    logged in via Facebook

    Ray, your article was very timely, for me, as I have only stumbled across your site at the CSIRO and your 'Emu Dreaming' book, which I will purchase this week.

    thanks from me to you, and your wife, for your wonderful work.

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  15. Lynne Kelly

    Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at LaTrobe University at LaTrobe University

    Thank you for a wonderful article, Ray. My research also looks at indigenous science knowledge, but from a different perspective.

    I think one of the reasons Europeans have been so poor at recognising indigenous science is that the way in which the information is stored is so alien to us. My research is into the memory methods used to store a vast amount of information when they do not use writing. Songlines are just the start. These mnemonic technologies are simply amazing and well beyond what…

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    1. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Lynne Kelly

      Thanks for that contribution Lynne. I'd love to talk to you about your work offline if possible - it sounds fascinating. Or maybe you could give us some references to your work? I have witnessed the heavyweight education endured by some of my indigenous friends. A young Yolngu man used to spend (maybe some still do) about 4 hours a day, every day, from puberty to middle age, rote-learning lore and ceremony. It's the central focus of their lives. My mate Bill Harney, senior elder of the Wardaman people, knows the name of every star in the sky down to 4th magnitude - he can run rings around any modern astronomer! And he has stories about most of them. I've always been unable to understand how anybody can learn so much in a mere human lifetime.

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    2. Lynne Kelly

      Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at LaTrobe University at LaTrobe University

      In reply to Ray Norris

      I would love to discuss this further, Ray. I’ll email. I wish I could point you to my material, but I couldn't say it all briefly enough for a journal article, and it is too interdisciplinary. It took a book, which will be published by Cambridge University Press next year as archaeology, because understanding the mnemonic systems offers a fairly radical new theory about why many enigmatic Neolithic and Archaic monuments were built the way they were. The title will be “Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric…

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    3. Peter Hindrup

      consultant

      In reply to Lynne Kelly

      Wow!

      If you have a list of 'to be notified' when published, would you kindly add mine? peterhindrup@gmail.com

      (trust this doesn't break any rules!) If so please pass on m email address.
      Thanks, Peter

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    4. Lynne Kelly

      Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at LaTrobe University at LaTrobe University

      In reply to Peter Hindrup

      Thanks for that enthusiasm, Peter. I didn't have a formal list-to-be-notified, but I will start one now. It's only newly contracted, but is written and goes into editing very soon.

      Thanks you again,

      Lynne

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    5. Lorraine Muller

      PhD - eternal student

      In reply to Lynne Kelly

      I would also like to be on the list my email is lorraine.muller at gmail. com.

      Just being a bit cautious with my email address :)

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    6. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Lynne Kelly

      It sounds great - I can't wait to read your book when it comes out.

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    7. Lynne Kelly

      Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at LaTrobe University at LaTrobe University

      In reply to Lorraine Muller

      Shall do, Lorraine. Thank you for your interest.

      Lynne

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  16. David Week

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Thank you Ray for a goldmine of an article. And for participating in the commentary that follows. Many Conversation authors don't.

    It seems to me that some of the commentary highlights another Kuhnian concept: incommensurability… that there is no paradigm-free zone from which one can compare two paradigms. One is either comparing them from within one of the paradigms, or from within the other, or from within a third paradigm. Some of the discussions here about whether Aboriginal cultures are "simple…

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    1. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to David Week

      Thanks David - nice point, which is reflected by many of the comments above. No, I can only view the world through my own eyes, and I'm as fallible as the next person. When I point out that some of our assumptions about Aboriginal society fly in the face of evidence, I feel I'm like the kid pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. But I'm also painfully aware that someone else may point out some equally obvious failing on my own part!

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    2. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to David Week

      David thanks, and briefly citing the following:
      i like and am very beneficially really challenged by reading the First Australians’ own literature in their own meanings and values terms, of, for one of many English language examples :
      Moreton–Robinson, Aileen
      (2000)
      Talkin’ Up to the White Woman : Aboriginal women and feminism.
      St. Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press. ISBN 0702231347.
      —excellent work, so much learning for me as a reader, so challenging, pithy and really fully in depth—in my personal opinion brilliant Aileen Moreton–Robinson!
      Jason.

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  17. Charlie Carter

    Biologist (ret) tour operator

    I refer everyone to a couple of books.
    'Making Connections' A journey along Central Australian Aboriginal Trading routes'
    Published by Arts Qld 2004
    'The Archaeology of Central Australia'
    Mike Smith 2013
    This brilliant work synthesises just about everything that is known about Aboriginal life and society at least in the semi- arid parts of Aus.

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  18. Damian Hayden

    IT Professional

    I found many of your statements contained heavily emotive language and exaggerated the facts, making your article little better than the nonsense they were supposedly teaching in schools less than a generation ago.

    "land was carefully managed by Aboriginal people to maximise productivity. This resulted in fantastically fertile soils..."
    Did they farm the land? Did they use irrigation? Fertilization? Did they domesticate animals to use them to enrich the soils? Perhaps the condition of the soil…

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    1. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Damian Hayden

      Hi Damian

      I can't respond to all your points, but let me start with the first few:
      "Did they farm the land? "
      yes - see the books cited above by Gammage, Pascoe, and others.

      "Did they use irrigation? "
      Yes - ditto

      "Fertilization? "
      Yes - ditto.

      "Did they domesticate animals to use them to enrich the soils? "
      Not as far as I know. Is that a necessary requirement for civilisation? No I don't think so.

      "Perhaps the condition of the soil was a result of them not plundering the land. So it was more a case of what they didn't do, then what they did."

      No it was (and still is) quite deliberate, and well-documented, and their techniques are increasingly being adopted for the management of arid and semi-arid lands.

      I'd recommend you read some of the literature cited above.

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  19. Terry Reynolds

    Financial and political strategist

    The stone age began to end for the Australian aboriginal on the arrival of the first settlers from England in 1788 and it was not until 1965 that the last nomadic aboriginals left the desert of central Australia to join modernity.

    It is axiomatic that Australian aboriginals were more advanced than Europeans 40,000 years ago, as ancient seed grinding stones have been found from back then in Australia while it was another 20,000 years before they came into use in Europe. However, there seems to…

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    1. David Sly

      Neuroscientist

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      The author has stated here several times that he is careful not to overstate or understate the scientific endeavours of aboriginal people.

      I was introduced to aboriginal culture through studies in Australian History in high school. I may have forgotten much of it, but recently my eyes were opened when visiting the SA museum.

      http://www.samuseum.sa.gov.au/explore/museum-galleries/australian-aboriginal-cultures

      Just a quick look at the sections on fishing and medicines made me realise they…

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    2. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      HI Terry, thank you for your informative contribution. However, I must demur on your point "Yes, there was an Australian Electoral Commissioner just after Federation who made it difficult for aboriginals to vote but he was operating ultra viries (beyond his powers). There was never any intention of educated aboriginals living in Australian society to not be able to vote and aborginal males got the vote 50 years before women did" as it has become a favourite hobby horse discovered by actually reading…

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    3. Gordon Angus Mackinlay

      Clinical Psychologist

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      " it was not until 1965 that the last nomadic aboriginals left the desert"

      There was quite a few groups of nomads who finally left the deserts to live in stations post 1965, it is accepted that the old couple, warri and yatungka were the last two traditional desert dwellers, see ;
      http://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries/the-last-of-the-nomads/clip1/?nojs

      while a photographic montage is at :
      https://www.google.com.au/search?q=warri+and+yatungka&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=jdZVU673GcSqkQWgloDoDw&sqi=2&ved=0CD8QsAQ&biw=1024&bih=460

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    4. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to David Sly

      Nice point. I'd love to take it on. I just need more hours in the day... :)

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    5. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Susan Nolan

      I'm guessing that was a spoof posting!

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    6. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Gordon Angus Mackinlay

      Thanks Gordon - that's amazing! I didn't know about that.

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    7. ian brown
      ian brown is a Friend of The Conversation.

      retired

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      "Today, Australia, just 226 years later, is the most advanced society on earth, as well as the happiest, richest, and with the highest standard of living."

      And despite this, we are so modest in our success! I'm reminded of Churchhill's comment that ... had much to be modest about.

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    8. Raine S Ferdinands

      Education at Education

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      "Today, Australia, just 226 years later, is the most advanced society on earth, as well as the happiest, richest, and with the highest standard of living. Even our first bank, "the Wales" (now Westpac) celebrates 200 years on 8.4.2017. We have achieved a lot for the benefit of eveyone here and we have a very fair and just society that looks after everyone." Really?

      Ahhh Terry! That we are just 226 years amazes me. Most advanced society on earth? Happiest, riches, etc etc? I appreciate the fact that at least your love for this land is absolute and love can blind us to reality. But who cares, I am with you in loving this land. I loath our past mistakes and wish that we will succeed in redressing them sooner. We must continue to progress together through both native and western knowledge for the good of this land.

      Ray Norris deserves a medal for this article and his balanced and factual replies to serious comments.

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    9. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Susan Nolan

      Terry Reynolds was have a … more than a parody (spoof – my silliness).

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    10. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Jason Stewart

      correction: having

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    11. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Jason Stewart

      Whoops - my profound apologies - I hadn't even heard of that meaning of the word "spoof". I did of course intend the meaning "parody".

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    12. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Not to worry. –LOL!

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    1. David Keir

      Business Owner

      In reply to David Keir

      sorry, para 7. should read, "also heard the frustration of my indigenous friends that the country isn't"...

      para 8, ..."our science fails to be able to comprehend".

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    2. Peter Boyd Lane

      geologist

      In reply to David Keir

      David, there's a relatively new science "geomythology" which relates myths of all cultures to geological events (tsunamis, meteorites etc), an interesting study for too long ignored.

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    3. Lynne Kelly

      Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at LaTrobe University at LaTrobe University

      In reply to David Keir

      Wonderfully perceptive post, David. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

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    4. David Keir

      Business Owner

      In reply to David Keir

      It also seems to me that the result of our arrogance in failing to acknowledge the extent of these knowledge systems is two-fold.

      On the one hand we have early settlers poisoning aboriginals for burning country when it was the same aboriginals' very burning that created their pasture and was stopping that pasture return to scrub, or people denying the complexity of interlaced underground saline/freshwater systems wanting to irrigate large areas in the Kimberley.

      But denying the utility of aboriginal's knowledge is just another way we have denied them economic power. Gubinge and Sandalwood plantations are two obvious developments that come to mind.

      Patents, professorships, cultural ambassadors, plantations, advisors to scientists, scientists who are aware of indigenous knowledge - these are all ways that indigenous people and practitioners of indigenous culture could be economically rewarded rather than just tourism projects.

      the clock is ticking and miners are moving.

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    5. David Keir

      Business Owner

      In reply to Peter Boyd Lane

      Thanks, Peter, hadn't heard this term before, but I wasn't talking about distant geological events, but was using indigenous knowledges of soil/water/plant relationships as an example of the utility of indigenous knowledges.

      This is my problem with these kinds of fields and my anthropological friends grapple with these same issues:-
      white people mining indigenous knowledges for specific instances. Sounds a bit like Joseph Campbell with rocks.

      ...and then the knowledge itself becomes a set of instances.

      In my experience, the white professional gets a career, the indigenous people get an ally, and little else.

      Can we support indigenous peoples preserve indigenous knowledges - for their/its own sake - and then be in a position to engage with us for their and our advantage?

      A custodian friend of mine who just passed away - and his grandfather - were trying to get to this point all his life. His family are still trying.

      Now that would be reconciliation.

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    6. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to David Keir

      Thankyou for your thoughtful post, David. I agree. My own specialization being science, I naturally focus on "Aboriginal science". But I'm only too well aware of how that is only a small part of the picture. I'm also aware that something I describe as scientific knowledge may be described by someone from a different discipline as knowledge in their own discipline. But the important point transcends these labels. As you point out, we are really talking about traditional knowledge, from traditional people studying and understanding their world. The important thing for us whitefellas is to appreciate and value that traditional knowledge, regardless of what labels we use or through whose eyes we see it.

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  20. Graham Bell

    Scrap-heaped War Veteran

    Thank you so very much for this article. It should be read by every student (from primary school to post-grad), by every policy draughter and decision maker and, of course, by every do-badder hell-bent on "saving(???) their (???) Indigenies".

    I'm fortunate in having missed out on this constricting paradigm. Aborigines looked different, that was obvious, but they were never inferior to anyone else. The dozens and dozens of traditional Aboriginal cultures and technologies were different too…

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  21. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

    Ray, many thanks for such a stimulating article. It, and all the responses provoked, have certainly made me think about this subject in a different light. However, I am compelled to make a few points. While Jared Diamond didn’t quite get it all right, his “Guns, Germs and Steel” certainly was illuminating, and explained perhaps better than any other work why there is so much technological (and economic) diversity in the world right now, considering all societies were at the same stage of development…

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  22. Michael Genner

    logged in via Facebook

    One of the evident concerns raised by this conversation is that it consists of predominantly non-Aboriginal contributions. This always raises the danger of naievity at best, cultural insensitivities and arrogance, a tourism mentality, references to 'they' etc. - positioning Aboriginal peoples as 'other'. Much of the published 'scholarship' on Aboriginal sciences is of this ilk. There is therefore much ignorance on parade - typified by the use of lower case 'aboriginal', the generalised 'people' rather than 'peoples' showing lack of understanding of the cultural diversity of Aboriginal peoples in Australia and the use of past tense (ignoring cultural continuity of kinship systems, living, dynamic cultures etc.). Until non-Aboriginal peoples get to cultural humility, a difficult and rare position, conversations like this are voyeuristic at best, insulting and denigrating at worst.

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  23. Gordon Angus Mackinlay

    Clinical Psychologist

    Earlier this year I attended a lecture in Sydney Uni, the person at the lectern telling us of how a ancient canoe discovered at Jeparit, Sir Robert Menzie's birthplace in VIC, was a sophisticated piece of Aboriginal work intended to harvest the fish from Lake Hindmarsh.

    I just happened to have within a folder a article from The Sydney Morning Herald in the mid 1990's describing in part how three 13 year old lads in the height of the Depression had constructed it from bush materials (using modern…

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    1. Terry Reynolds

      Financial and political strategist

      In reply to Gordon Angus Mackinlay

      Gordon, thanks for that valuable information. Ignorance prevails when those with knowledge fail to speak up, so every bit of factual information helps our understanding. Australia is an amazing place today, thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of a lot of people and their generosity. We all know that mistakes were made but our science is enabling us to correct most, especially in agriculture. Few Australians go hungry in 2014, nor fail to obtain medical help when needed. The job market is tough for all of us, especially if you choose to live outside of the major cities.

      Unfotunatley for science it often gets ahead of public opinion and meets resistance to change until the public catch up.

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  24. Ben Barrett

    logged in via Facebook

    Fascinating article Ray. Too often indigenous cultures are dismissed as that of simple nomads. The reality is they have/had a deep understanding of many sciences, just not expressed via the written word.

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  25. Peter Boyd Lane

    geologist

    I agree David, I just thought I'd mention that as a point of interest. My granddaughter is about to start recording information from her (Aboriginal) grandmother for our mutual benefit.

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  26. Murray Webster

    Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

    And the impacts of removal of Aboriginal management of the landscape are on-going, with species decline and extinction continuing in our national parks, despite reservation and conservation management.
    eg in the wet tropics e.g:
    Australian Forestry
    Volume 77, Issue 1, 2014
    Fire exclusion and the changing landscape of Queensland’s Wet Tropics Bioregion 1. The extent and pattern of transition
    "The vegetation and geology of the Wet Tropics Bioregion of North Queensland, covering 1 998 150…

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    1. Paul Prociv

      ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Murray Webster

      But Murray, doesn't "large areas of sclerophyll woodland and forest being invaded by a rainforest understory that prevents regeneration of the sclerophyll canopy" tell you something? I've been intimately involved in revegetating degraded pastures, and have observed this see-sawing phenomenon between rainforest and sclerophyll, mediated by fire, and can only conclude that, in northern Qld, the rainforest predominated, until repeated firestick hunting eradicated it. The RF is at long last being permitted to return to its original state. Many authorities believe that this transformation of the landscape contributed significantly to the extinction of Australia's megafauna. While firestick hunting might have promoted kangaroo numbers, and facilitated their killing, to me it's comparable to fishing with explosives -- too much wasted "by-catch", and definitely not the great husbanding of country for which indigenous ancestors are repeatedly praised.

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    2. Benjamin Ratcliff

      Nurse

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      Yes, tampering with nature is detrimental to stuff.

      Australia's megafauna extintion looks suspiciously like people are involved.

      But even with that charge there is still probably a very good record of great husbanding of country.

      30,000 years of fairly stable and fairly sustainable culture, minus perhaps some over kill in 16,000 BC.

      Gunditjamara have at least 12,000 years of permanent aquaculture. Is that not a great record of sustainable husbandry of country and cleaver social systems within and with other nearby countries: to not end up with endless wars and shit ?

      And yes fishing with explosives, like bushfires must indiscriminately kill lots of stuff, but if it’s manageable and sustainable overall then it might just be ok if you’re ok with killing stuff.

      Thylacines disappeared from mainland Australia too: Would it be a bit rich pass hash judgement over this?

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    3. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      If you really want to learn evidence before speculations you will read this good entrée following—and then the rest of the body of literature. I’m happy to supply key, most cited, papers if you have good faith to learn not spoof—been reading them myself for 20+ years.
      A balanced, plain English brief summary good entrée (available free, book extract) :→http://www.publish.csiro.au/samples/australiaburningsample.pdf
      Bowman, David (UTAS & CDU) (2003) "Bushfires: A Darwinian Perspective"
      in Geoffrey Cary (ANU), David Lindenmayer (ANU), Stephen Dovers (ANU) (ed’s) (2003)
      Australia Burning: Fire ecology, policy and management issues
      CSIRO Publishing. 280 pp. ISBN 0643069267.

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    4. Paul Prociv

      ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Jason Stewart

      Thanks for that link and references, Jason - fascinating stuff. I wonder if we'll ever have sufficient evidence to be able to cut down on some of the speculation? But there's no doubt that Aboriginal fire practices had a profound effect on the local ecology, at least in some parts of Australia. And that fire-adapted species were established here before that, indicating that fire was already a well-established component of the natural eco-system, again in limited parts. It's likely that human practices extended the range of those specialised plant species, perhaps at the same time jeopardising the survival of various animal species

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    5. Paul Prociv

      ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Jason Stewart

      Thanks for that one, too. I was aware of JD's views on this (altho not that specific article), and feel he was being deliberately provocative. There's no doubt agriculture has changed the face of the planet, as well as the spectrum of human diseases, but he paints an over-rosy picture of hunter-gatherer life-styles. He also doesn't admit that his own jet-setting life-style would not have been possible without agriculture.
      As with most other animals, human populations rise and fall with food supply. Agriculture sure boosted our food supply, with populations following closely behind, for better or worse. Growing population densities, and intimate exposure to domestic animals, played a big part in introducing lots of new pathogens into our infectious disease repertoire. Perhaps we're the only species aware of these facts, so you'd think we'd try a bit harder to control our own populations, instead of waiting for Gaia to do it for us . . .

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    6. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      Thanks for that reply, we’re sharing more of some evidences … .
      Here following, is the great fun–for–me second step twist (this last link post of the 1987 widely known article and this following link, was a little two step process, two steps that i planned, for communicating purposes):
      This is the way the JarredD…–cookie really crumbles : →http://www.livinganthropologically.com/anthropology/agriculture-as-worst-mistake-in-the-history-of-the-human-race/
      If you take up this above second step, no…

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    7. Peter Stark

      Contract weed sprayer

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      A question and an observation. From school boy history I remember reading that Cook and Phillip observed the smoke from many fires as they approached the Australian coast and, I think, both observations were during our summer. Whilst I don’t doubt that the Aboriginal people took advantage of the fresh growth following a fire, there seems to be an assumption that they lit these fires intentionally. How many of these fires were the result of summer lightning strikes ?

      With no Rural Fire service…

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    8. Lorraine Muller

      PhD - eternal student

      In reply to Peter Stark

      It might be useful if you passed on your photo and the details of the rock to the local Aboriginal corporation, because this could be a significant find.

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    9. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Peter Stark

      Hi Peter

      I would love to have a look at that. We have some well-documented examples (see http://www.emudreaming.com/Further_reading.htm ) of pre-contact Aboriginal people marking the cardinal points to high accuracy, and further examples would be fantastic. But you also have to be careful that these aren't modern survey marks. Any chance you could email me a photo and location? (I will not of course publish anything without the support and consent of the traditional owners)

      Thanks

      Ray

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    10. Bruce Pascoe

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Stark

      Dear Peter, I'm in the CFA (Mallacoota) and recommend Gammage's Biggest Estate (Aand U). Wildfire was largely unknown (as the science of tree ring analysis shows) because the land was virtually free of underbrush as a result of persistent cool burns by Aboriginal people over many thousands of years. We've got a tangle of bush near the town which we aren't allowed to burn because it has one old unused fence (it doesn't join up with anything) and an unused shed. The fear of litigation should the shed go hampers our need to protect the town. A similar block we did burn resulted in no large trees being lost and two years later the best wattle and orchid season anyone can remember. Bruce

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    11. Murray Webster

      Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      Hi Paul, I haven't been following this discussion (so don't expect a response), but yes it does tell me something.
      It appears to me that aboriginal land management practice managed to achieve relative stability and sustainability after an initial period of extinction.
      A big question for me then is how to manage areas. I understand the ideology of "leaving nature to itself would be the best". Although it does appear to be an ideology associated with Western Society (which has caused most of the ecological problems in Australia) - Aboriginal society did not hold such beliefs. If 'leaving nature to itself' was going to result in extinction of species would you act to save them or 'leave nature to itself'?

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    12. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Murray Webster

      Wow, Murray, I remember having a run-in with you in a Conversation about forest ecosystem destruction (forestry), but now I have to to agree with you. The point you make is one also made by Val Plumwood (who incidentally was an incendiary anti-logging activist-philosopher from the 70s onward).

      Plumwood pointed out that the West's approach to nature was human-centered - humans were radically separated from and superior to nature, and nature existed merely as a resource for the furtherment of human…

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    13. Paul Prociv

      ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Murray Webster

      Murray, I think what you write is correct for traditional hunter-gatherer societies, with the implication that their population stays essentially steady, meaning zero growth, i.e. a high infant/child mortality, if their fertility is not controlled. I don't think any of them were/are even aware of what other-species extinction was, or meant, and probably didn't give it much thought. Technologically-developed, agricultural societies have surpassed that, now depending on economies that require constant growth. Leaving nature alone is completely out of the question -- the human die-off will be astronomical, although not leading to extinction of Homo sapiens. I suppose we can call it Big-Bang Malthusianism, for the outcome is inevitable -- I just hope it can wait for me to drop off the mortal coil first!.

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  27. Erica Jolly

    Writer about education

    Thank you for the article and the references. The Australian national curriculum provided interdisciplinary connections for three areas of study - sustainability, Indigenous culture and Asian culture - to cross over into specific subject areas. Challenging those views that were part of the education of those at school when this was 'White Australia' is very important. Both books should be in school library/resource centres for students and staff across horizontal and vertical levels of study. The concern is that the two men reviewing the Curriculum, - Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire appear to support the view of the Federal Minister for Education who sees no value in connecting aspects of knowledge by making that connection through this kind of cross-over. The kind of enlightenment we need now. And, another example why we need the CSIRO as an educational force in the lives of Australians. Thank you again.

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  28. Ella McKella

    Teacher

    Ray, great article and thank you for continuing to comment and providing extra information.
    I will request that my library order "The Biggest Estate on Earth" but I cannot find the other book you recommend - The Dark Emu. Do you have a link or publisher details?
    Thanks

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    1. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Ella McKella

      I'll just clear up a spot of confusion here. There are two books: Bruce Pascoe's excellent "Dark Emu" for which the details are given by Jason below, and my own book (with my wife) "Emu Dreaming" which is available from the link given by Mark below (www.emudreaming.com)

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    2. Mark Amey

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Sorry, Ray, had the two emus mixed up. Stumbled across your website whilst away in Italy, feeling homesick and looking up some Australiana (plus some astronomy).

      Ironically we saw a feral emu in a little town just outside of Cinque Terre.

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    3. Bruce Pascoe

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ella McKella

      Good on you Ella, the publisher is Magabala, Broome WA. I hope you enjoy it. Bruce

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  29. Leesa Lettoof

    Student

    A fabulous article. We're just studying this at UWS in a unit called Indigenous landscapes. I hope Indigenous studies are included in the national curriculum and we embrace the huge contribution Indigenous culture can have on our society. It is a privledge to learn about Indigenous Australians and Australia.

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    1. Raine S Ferdinands

      Education at Education

      In reply to Leesa Lettoof

      "It is a privledge to learn about Indigenous Australians and Australia." Hear .. hear … well said, Leesa.

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    2. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Leesa Lettoof

      Thanks Leesa. By a curious coincidence I have just today had the honor of being invited to accept an adjunct professorship at @UWS, via @UWSObservatory, so perhaps I may have the privilege of giving you and your colleagues a first-hand account of this stuff.

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    3. Leesa Lettoof

      Student

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Thanks Ray, well I hope we cross paths. We hope there are more Indigenous knowledge based subjects coming up. UWS is a great uni!

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  30. Sustainable Oceans

    logged in via Facebook

    Fantastic article. We need to see more like this and I have to tell my story of how I was recently blown away by Aboriginal wisdom about the Great Barrier Reef.

    We had a discussion with Bob Sands up in Cairns about the reef as he's the traditional owner for Green Island. He has amazing stories about the reef but one really stood out. He explained how they depended upon the reef for food but after the coral spawning, they were forbidden to hunt on the reef for several months. This showed incredible…

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    1. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Sustainable Oceans

      Great story, Mr. Sustainable Oceans - I hadn't heard that before. Richard Feynman would have agreed wholeheartedly with you that this sort of knowledge is much more important to understanding an animal or plant than its Latin name.

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    2. Paul Prociv

      ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Sustainable Oceans

      I'm intrigued by that story. How did the local Aborigines know it was coral spawning? Could it have been red tides, which can look very similar (without access to a microscope), but have serious human health implications, with skin, eye and respiratory tract irritation, plus food poisoning? This would have explained the proscribed abstinence from harvesting food from the reef.

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  31. John Sayers

    Designer

    In her book, The last of the Aboriginals, Daisy Bates describes how the Aboriginal communities would gather en masse around the shores of Lake Eyre every few years. This would enable trading, which explains why Cape York shelled trinkets were found in SW Australia but more importantly for the exchange of young women and men to add diversity to the gene pool.

    Clearly there must have been some sophisticated navigation skills and knowledge of time for this to be achieved.

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    1. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to John Sayers

      Very much so John. We now know that material goods were being traded across the length and breadth of Australia, with well-established and well-documented trading routes crossing the country from coast to coast. Many follow songlines, and many modern highways follow these trade routes (because the original road-builders used Aboriginal guides to find the way).

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  32. Matt Stevens

    Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

    Still trying to work out what great pieces of knowledge we are to gain from Australia's First people, a hunter gatherer society now living in a sedentary, technological world. Maybe when we have a world nuclear war, then the knowledge will be useful again. So yes, make sure it is recorded, but really, for the moment we should be focusing on teaching Aboriginal people (those in the north and the NT especially) about the new world and the social norms (and the culture that underlies it) required to live in the here and now, or forever see them sitting on the bottom of the pile, along with the women and children suffering, and the men basking in their self-pity about their glory days where they were the bosses, they held the secrets, they owned the women and they owned all the power.

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    1. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Matt Stevens

      Hi Matt ... have you ever considered crawling out of your concrete cellar bunker down under the pollution cloud that hovers perpetually over all metropolitan cities and breathe some clean air in the country? You may discover a new world where milk does not grow in boxes, meat walks and water can be found outside water pipes.

      Believe it or not, there is a great deal in this universe that cannot be described by numbers.

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    2. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Matt Stevens

      A couple of examples, Matt. (1) Pharmaceutical companies are developing new drugs based on Aboriginal bush medicine. (Actually a large fraction of new drugs are based on indigenous medicine from one country or another - its a very efficient technique of drug discovery), (2) Aboriginal land management practice are being adopted by land authorities, national parks, etc in many areas of regional Australia.

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    3. Matt Stevens

      Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

      In reply to Ray Norris

      I'll pay number 1 Ray for sure (see http://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/none/source-our-cures-new-pharmaceutical-company-wants-prov for an interesting article and a company set up to work with Indigenous cultures in tropical rainforests). Not sure how many of the 121 (74% of these from Indigenous cultures which is about 90) have come from Australia's Aboriginal people thus far - i know they have made some cream from a plant up here in the NT. In terms of burning, I cannot possibly see how we can duplicate the burning practices of the Aboriginal unless we go back to living in small tribal groups, wondering the land and lighting fires to catch animals, which every remote NT Aboriginal I have talked to has said how it works.

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    4. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Matt Stevens

      As a scientist Matt I would think that you would take the time to read the multitude of references provided in the article and the comments here before making such broad and incorrect statements about area(s) of knowledge outside your area of expertise.

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  33. Graham Bell

    Scrap-heaped War Veteran

    We all do need to be very careful with terminology lest we do more unintentional harm than real good.

    The general public has really fixed and restricted ideas about what Science is and what it isn't. Speaking about Aboriginal Technology and about Aboriginal Knowledge or Aboriginal Wisdom is fine, most people will be happy with that - but speaking loosely about "Aboriginal Science" is an open invitation to scorn and to accusations of "political correctness". If you or I hear a well-informed…

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    1. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Graham Bell

      That's a fair point, Graham, but we also need to educate the public about what science is and what it isn't. For example, it isn't about men in white coats issuing unquestionable facts that are guaranteed to be right. It's about real warm-blooded fallible people trying to make sense of their world, and, importantly, testing their ideas against observational reality. The ultimate authority is not what any scientists say, its what the evidence says.

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  34. Steven B laube

    unemployes

    tides perhaps they did not have a Pope treating there life's your atical seem to be populist and with raciest over tones you give unsubstantiated roomers as facts its just as possible contact with people who used the tides has been happening tin the top end for many 100 of years & its just as possible that learning through that contact , its all conjurer used as political leverage i when i was at school never learnt a thing about aboriginal Australia 7 your idea are far from reality it seem you did not bother to check the schools curriculum?
    i find it strange that Aboriginal on aboriginal massacres reserve highlighted as white /native are another example of politicizing the past usage of mans inhumanity to man

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  35. Michael Paton

    Honorary Associate School of Economics at University of Sydney

    Thanks for an interesting and insightful article Ray. It's always refreshing to see working scientists comment on the history and philosophy of science.

    The philosopher of science, Nicholas Maxwell, argues that the search for scientific knowledge has been divorced from the getting of wisdom,and we are reaping the consequences of such a split. Research into the science of traditional cultures that avoided the Descartian split between emotion and rationality can help us understand how to the mend the rift.

    To discard indigenous knowledge systems and science as being too primitive is merely cultural chauvinism. We survive as a species through science broadly construed, and the millenia that the indigenous peoples have inhabited the desert that doesn't look like a desert that is Oz certainly indicate viable scientific knowledge.

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    1. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Michael Paton

      Thanks Michael - interesting point. I haven't read anything by Nicholas Maxwell - I can see I need to!

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    2. Michael Paton

      Honorary Associate School of Economics at University of Sydney

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Maxwell's work is worth having a gander at. His university, University College London, is now committed to the getting of wisdom through rational enquiry as its main aim.

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    3. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Michael Paton

      Thanks Michael for sharing about the philosopher of science, Nicholas Maxwell. I’m glad to have learned of him, as i hadn’t previously heard of him (either).
      Michael, after reading your profile here in The Conversation, your own work seems intriguing. I’d like to access more of that scholarly work. As i haven’t read any of this work, of course i’m on the outside looking on, so i hold off my thoughts on how to take it and need to just start reading the scholarly evidences.

      Like many of us involved…

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    4. Michael Paton

      Honorary Associate School of Economics at University of Sydney

      In reply to Jason Stewart

      Thanks for the link Jason. I hadn't come across Jessica's work before.

      Thanks also for your intrigue re my research and writings. You can find many of them online. Any thoughtful criticism is welcomed.

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  36. peter mackenzie

    Transport Researcher

    Hi Ray

    My thanks also for this very interesting and informative article. And as someone else wrote- thanks for joining in the commentary - it makes it much richer.

    You certainly generated a lot of comments, many interesting and also informative - very helpful to me given my level of ignorance on the topic.

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  37. Trent Howard

    logged in via Twitter

    Crickey that took awhile. Just read the article and every comment. Such a fascinating area and I'll be picking up the books recommended.

    I come at this problem from a different angle. I'm using Art to try and better understand Aboriginal culture. I don't suppose to be Aboriginal or speak for them but by telling stories that glimpse into there world I think it helps us all understand more.

    Science communication and the arts imo is the way to open the public's eyes and start prolonged public debate.

    Thanks mate for a cracker of an article :)

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  38. Joanne Hay

    logged in via Facebook

    I feel very sad when I read articles about Indigenous Australian culture, written in the past tense. Casual racism that is hardly ever noticed.

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  39. Ray Norris

    Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

    Now that this conversation is tailing off, I'd like to add a couple of general comments.

    First, thank you so much for your comments - even those of you who disagreed with me. I was stunned by the extent to which it really is possible to have a serious "conversation" following the publication of an article. with some amazingly insightful comments, and in many cases accompanied by information and references that were new to me. And of course you cant have a good conversation if everybody agrees…

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    1. Lorraine Muller

      PhD - eternal student

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Thank you for taking this much needed conversation into the wider community.

      I think your work will be invaluable for the Elders of the future.

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    2. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Jason Stewart

      Thanks Jason - no I hadn't seen that paper, although there is a link to one of Harris's other papers in the article itself where I mention number systems.

      Great stuff - many thanks

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    3. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Yeh does seem good, i’ve only read about half of it.
      For everyone, a somewhat better citation of the reference:
      Harris, John
      (Dec 1982)
      "Facts and fallacies of Aboriginal Number Systems"
      AUSIL, Summer Institute of Linguistics, Australian Aborigines Branch, Darwin.
      PDF file at:→http://www.ausil.org.au/sites/ausil/files/WP-B-8%20Aborig%20Number%20Sytems_0.pdf

      Thanks. As said i’ll make contact offline soon enough.

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    4. peter mackenzie

      Transport Researcher

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Hi Ray

      This doesn't need a reply from you, just wanted to say again, thanks for your item and your involvement with the comments.

      You have generated a lot of comments for an item that isn't about global warming so congratulations. And unfortunately those on global warming usually degenerate into pejoratives and other personal sleights- sad really.

      And yes please, do write more on this fascinating topic.

      I heard a Ted X talk a few years back by ?? (name evades me) on the success of the Australian Aboriginal people in the face of the harshness of an ice age and incredibly lengthy drought. To my of what I thought was such amazing history, one workfriend just commented "but they didn't build anything" (ie apartment blocks), and another "why didn't they make iron" - we have a long way to go to change our ignorance.

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  40. Graham Bell

    Scrap-heaped War Veteran

    Several hours ago, I was given a piece of shocking news about the current state of Aboriginal technology, which I hope is not true: That there are now only three people left who are competent in knapping stone by the tradition methods. If this is true, how the hell could this be allowed to happen??? If this is true, it is not only a loss to Aboriginal technology but the serious loss of an important part of overall Australian culture.

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    1. Benjamin Ratcliff

      Nurse

      In reply to Graham Bell

      Maybe? it's kind of cool.

      The bloke on the $50 never got paid: that was a loss for Aboriginal technology and a big setback for everybody... at least he's on our money now.

      Everybody's anscestors knapped stone and anyone really concerned can probably go and get a lesson.

      Personally, oneday I will make a fire with sticks...maybe with a bow.

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    2. Bruce Pascoe

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Graham Bell

      Thanks Graeme Bell for your thoughtul question. Please be assured that knapping techniques are still practised by thousands of Aboriginal people and taught to young people to this day ... as recently as last weekend

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  41. Yvette Hunt

    logged in via Facebook

    I just read this to my mother in her 50s, my brother in his early 20s and I am in my mid 30s. While we would agree that we were likely educated within the paradigm as you use the term, none of us were taught aboriginal cultures in the manner you describe in your first paragraph. Granted, my mother was taught basically nothing on the topic. You might be pulling from your English educational experience, but is not true for Australia in my generation, especially in schools with aboriginal students.

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    1. Lorraine Muller

      PhD - eternal student

      In reply to Yvette Hunt

      School teacher I know are shocked when they learn that Aboriginal people built stone houses, farmed and traded widely as the curriculum still has the hunter-gatherer paradigm.

      Sure there may be a few enlightened school teachers but not many which is why articles such as this are so important.

      If your and your brother's experience was different from the first paragraph, can you please share what you were taught in school and the grade level if you can recall.

      My current study indicates that it mainly at university, in select subjects, that students first become aware that what they were taught in school about Aboriginal people was wrong.

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  42. Lynne Black

    Latte Sipper

    How about, instead of using the term "political correctness", which has become a bit of a put-down of late (as in "well-educated white Australians trying so hard to be politely correct"), we just use the word "respect".

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  43. Max Finlayson

    Director, Institute for Land, Water and Society at Charles Sturt University

    A great article, and well appreciated. And also the many comments that suggest to me that we have come a long way in our knowledge and understanding, while recognising that we could (should) go much further.

    The sentiment of the opening paragraph is understood, but overstated in my experience - we did live in a racist environment but we were not taught, either formally or informally (education is not just about grades and courses) the type of things mentioned. There was much more to be learnt and I (repeat) appreciate the ongoing opportuntities to do so, and hope we can share this much further.

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    1. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Max Finlayson

      To the extent that "wandered the desert scavenging for food" is probably just a value-laden way of describing a primarily nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, we were taught that, and rightly so, because it is basically true of a great many aboriginal nations. The problem was and still is the negative value judgements made about that lifestyle.

      It's great to be making an attempt to reverse negative value judgements, and it's also great to be correcting the record in terms of the details of aboriginal society. But to be arguing that we should value aboriginal society (only) by virtue of the ways in which it resembles Western "civilisation" (is not "primitive") is in my view hardly an improvement, at all.

      Instead of questioning the factual accuracy of labels like wandering, scavenging, primitive, we should instead be questioning the value systems that underly these words.

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    2. Graeme Smith

      Citizen

      In reply to Max Finlayson

      1970, and my high school history excursion for the year briefly took in a midden near the shore of Lake Illawarra, mention of a "friendly" "King Billy" out of the way, and back to white pioneers.

      I must say over the years ABC Radio National programming has done much to contribute to and stimulate my (still) inadequate education in this regard... quality, informal, engaging, surprising - I suppose a bit like The Conversation!

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    3. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      That opening paragraph was (obviously) deliberately provocative, but does I think make a fair point. While I am glad to hear that some of us had intelligent enlightened teachers who didn't resort to those racial stereotypes, it is clear that some people (including some of my own friends) did indeed grow up with those stereotypes of "primitive" Aboriginal people, and now have difficulty accepting ideas such as Aboriginal number systems, navigation, or agriculture. For example, I suspect Rolf Harris, singing in the sixties "Let me Abo's go loose, they're of no further use" would have been in that group.

      My intention is not to argue that Aboriginal society resembled European society, but to argue against the idea that traditional Aboriginal societies were "primitive".

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  44. Jill Sampson

    visual artist

    Thank you for this article. I am reading Dark Emu and it is compelling.

    A few years ago I moved back to the farm where I had grown up. I started to look for signs of what this area looked like, the way it would have been used and what has been left from the First Australians. I began to try to see how the land would have been before our fences, roads, cropping (bora rings in the neighbouring farm have been ploughed for many years). It has been an enlightening journey, but also one where I…

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    1. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Jill Sampson

      Thanks Jill, I have had similar experiences of incredible loss in coming to learn about the land/country with the help of a local elder. Through this journey I have come to realise that I am only now beginning to understand the place I was born.

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  45. Richard O'Neill

    Consultant

    Fantastic piece, I am old enough to recall images of Aboriginal people in Social Studies books, and wonder how Kevin B, an Aboriginal kid in my class, felt when the other 69 kids in that class had a laugh at the expense of Aboriginals, and their lack of "sophistication"?
    As the truth surfaces, regarding not just their artistic capabilities, but the complex nature of their society, culture, languages and heritage, I feel we have robbed ourselves of such richness in most fields of endeavour; but none…

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  46. John Clark

    Manager

    I am not sure that contributions such as this advance the cause of understanding and acceptance, since respondents are unable to debate claims without risk of breaching racial vilification legislation. Most respondents agree with the premise, that is extremely tenuous, but only supporters of the proposition are safe.

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    1. Richard O'Neill

      Consultant

      In reply to John Clark

      Dear John
      Don't worry, even George Brandis allows bigotry rather than vilification, and certainly I am a newbee here, but the reason I joined is that there are reasoned issues and debates. I therefore have trouble seeing how you can't present an opposing view. Your words, "Most respondents agree with the premise" suggest that not all do, so reasoned debate can live here, can it not? Interestingly for me, I arrived here from a Facebook connection that boasts an extraordinary threads of debate, strangely, until I encountered that circle, I thought there was little space to voice my views, yet it has opened a world of learning for me. All the best in your quest!

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    2. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Clark

      I wouldn't say that refuting Ray Norris' proposition on factual grounds would be racial vilification. Vilification involves making not statements of fact, but claims of value. You can argue all you like that aborigines moved around from place to place quite a lot, that they primarily met their needs through subsistence hunting and gathering, that they did not develop metallurgy or other technologies of the west or an extensive body of theory in physics or chemistry or other materialistic, mechanistic…

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    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      There is much emphasis put on the tragedy that befell Aborigines when the English landed.

      There would always been a point when , if not the English, some other nation or empire would have come in and taken over.

      It's human nature, it's world history from day one.

      It is a moot point to theorise whether that "other" invader would have been more or less destructive or benign. But it was always going to happen.

      It is immaterial to judge the Aborigine culture "primitive" or non-scientific.

      It is what is is (or was), as the White/Western culture is what it is......the two were and are always going to be at odds on many levels.

      There is no point in continually regurgitating a past that cannot be changed. History is yesterday, and all the hand-wringing and accusations won't change a thing.

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    4. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      Yay Russell, well articulated crucial point, and yay Ray still too in terms of bringing forward good evidence. Words that have a racialist message(s) their value judgements i ignore and their factual–fallacies get destroyed with evidence (which we have). Both violent–brutal value judgements and factual–fallacies have been distributed by particularly British, and western European, evil propaganda, for more than 200 years until today, eg. the African slave trade led by the British and many then European…

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    5. Susan Nolan

      retired

      In reply to John Clark

      You are able to debate the claims without risk of breaching racial vilification legislation.

      This is what the NSW Anti-discrimination Act says:

      "20C Racial vilification unlawful

      (1) It is unlawful for a person, by a public act, to incite hatred towards, serious contempt for, or severe ridicule of, a person or group of persons on the ground of the race of the person or members of the group.

      (2) Nothing in this section renders unlawful:

      (a) a fair report of a public act…

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    6. Graeme Smith

      Citizen

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      History can't help yesterday. Sure, they're stuck where they are. I rather thought history was more to do with the contested present and future, things that even many of a Naturalist persuasion think can be changed, including change by counterfactual histories.

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    7. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Graeme Smith

      History only has something to do with the future if we learn from it.

      The world's history is a continuum of war, greed and arrogance.
      So much to take heed of and learn to do much better.

      The Aborigines need not be stuck where they are - unless they want to be.

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    8. Peter Hindrup

      consultant

      In reply to Susan Nolan

      Susan: I am not so certain. At the present time Professor Jake Lynch, Director of Peace and Conflict studies at Sydney University is defending a case bought against him by some Israeli outfit, backed by the Israeli government, for harm to Jews, everywhere, merely because he declined to sign a support for an application from an Israeli Professor for a position at Sydney University. Jake did not know, and had not worked with this individual.

      He refused because part of the university at which this man works in Israel is built on Palestinian land, and the university does work supporting the IDF.

      As if anybody, is obliged to recommend anybody, simply because they have been asked to!

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    9. Susan Nolan

      retired

      In reply to Peter Hindrup

      That would not be racial vilification - unless the Professor whom you named had added quite a bit more to what you have said he did.

      It would be more likely to be being examined with respect to whether or not the Professor you mentioned by name had discriminated against the other person in an employment matter - that is whether he had made his decision to decline to support the application on relevant grounds. From what you say, - "He refused because part of the university at which this…

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    10. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Hand-wringing *could* change things, if people would take it as an opportunity to reflect on the attitudes that brought about those atrocities, what's wrong with those attitudes, and what alternative sets of attitudes could be cultivated in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of history. Exactly the same point can be made about social justice within Western society and about ecological justice in Western treatment of the nonhuman world, because the same set of attitudes underlies all three. And…

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    11. Graeme Smith

      Citizen

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      By "they're stuck where they are" I did not in any way mean Aboriginals specifically inhabiting the present or past, I meant all who have gone before. All those back when who inhabit past times... entropy ... "yesterday" can't be helped by doing good historical research such as Ray has done here for this article now whereas inhabitants of the present and future may be helped.

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    12. Lorraine Muller

      PhD - eternal student

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Stephen Ralph, history constructs the present and influences the future.
      One of the saddest outcomes of the heavy editing of history to favour the coloniser's preferred narrative, is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have also believe these historical Eurocentric stories.

      Deliberately cutting out eye-witness accounts of stone houses, farming, trading etc., was a deliberate act of colonisation.

      You suggest that somehow Indigenous Australians "need not be stuck where they are - unless…

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    13. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      Yay Russell! —minor clarification by my opinion, learn from our own historical cultures and from more languages and cultures in the present, different from our own.
      The astonishing richness and magnificence of many of our shared planet Earth’s 7,000 languages and cultures … !

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    14. Peter Hindrup

      consultant

      In reply to Graeme Smith

      Thanks Graeme: I was too lazy to look it all up, but received an email 20 minutes later that had it all . . . I signed on as a co defendant at the very beginning --- if one is not prepared to fight this sort of nonsense, then one deserves to live in a police state.

      Two further streams of support have emerged in recent days, one being academics rallying to the cause.

      It is instructive of just how far Israel will go to protect its none existent 'good name'.

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    15. Peter Hindrup

      consultant

      In reply to Lorraine Muller

      All of the so called third world people were painted as ignorant savages ... non humans, making it all the easier to justify, destroying their way of life, plundering all the wealth that they had, killing and raping.

      The savages were of course the colonisers. Were, and still are.

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    16. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Jason Stewart

      For example, our own European–Australian story as part of the Indo–European language family originating in the then fertile cresent, what is now called the Middle East and had its fertility anthropogenically destroyed:
      See here:→https://www.facebook.com/groups/AustralianBushFoodBushTucker/10152363394649505/
      Hillman, Gordon; Hedges, Robert; Moore, Andrew; Colledge, Susan; Pettitt, Paul
      (1 May 2001)
      "New evidence of Lateglacial cereal cultivation at Abu Hureyra on the Euphrates".
      The Holocene…

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    17. Susan Nolan

      retired

      In reply to Graeme Smith

      Thanks for the information. I assumed that the case was being taken under the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act because Peter Hindrup was talking about anti-vilification provisions and there are no such provisions under the Federal Racial Discrimination Act.

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    18. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      You are more optimistic than I.
      It's not just Western cultural tradition - from Africa to China, history is chock full of examples of brutality and enslavement.

      It goes on today, and will go on til the end.

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    19. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Lorraine Muller

      Hi Lorraine

      society is built upon the premise of layers - there will always be the poor and abused, the "middle" class, the wealthy, and the elite.

      The most rigid of those layers is the bottom group who most often don't rise above their "station".

      History as I said can be valid if we learn from past mistakes - but we don't. We continue to treat each other and the natural world in contempt.

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    20. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      It's also chock full of examples of the opposite, for anyone who chooses to take off the colonial blinkers and see them.

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    21. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      Get over colonialism.....we were a fiefdom of England ourselves for years. We had minor aristocracy for our head of state, and a PM who once said of Queen Elizabeth - "I did but see her passing by and yet I love her till I die".

      So many states have been colonised by so many others that you seem only to be blinkered yourself by Western colonialism.

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    22. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      All of your examples are of Western colonialism. In any case I am talking about colonialism in general, in fact in the most general sense of institutionalised suppression and exploitation under the fantasy of mutual improvement, including with nonhumans and nonhuman systems as the colonised.

      Why should we get over an attitude that is the source of so much destruction and oppression, that still persists, and which is propelling us towards ecological apocalypse? Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die?

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    23. John Clark

      Manager

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      Russell - Your criticism of Ray Norris exemplifies the risks that you play down. "not making negative value judgements" is followed by labelling Ray as making those judgements. You deny him the use of certain words such as "primitive" "wandering' "scavenging". So what words would you find acceptable to nomadic people foraging for food".

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    24. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      Genghis Khan and relatives were not Western, nor the overlords of the Chinese states that invaded and colonised others to eventually form China under the Chin dynasty.

      The African tribal kings who colonised their weaker neighbours were not Western. I could go on.

      Worry not about historic colonisation, but the current breed of bullies that want to dominate and subjugate others, both geographically and economically.

      There's enough to worry about in this present time, without dwelling on the mis-deeds of prior generations.

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    25. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Clark

      John - to clarify, I think it's great that Ray's article brings into question those negative value judgements - that to me is a definite positive, even though I think a more through-going critique of the basis of those judgements is necessary. There is actually a difference between making a negative criticism of someone's ideas (even if it's only partial in my case) and making a negative judgement about a person overall, or about an entire group of persons, the latter of which is what I was talking…

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    26. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to John Clark

      Please, PLEASE, don't attribute words like "primitive" "wandering' "scavenging" to me! I would never use such offensive words except when quoting them in an attempt to point out the hidden assumptions of people who use them!

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    27. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      Thanks for your clarification Russell. Perhaps a further clarification would be useful.

      Certainly there is good evidence that some Aboriginal groups were (technically) nomadic hunter-gatherers, but that may not mean what people think it means. For example, some Yolngu groups were nomadic hunter gatherers, which means they owned and cared for large tracts of land, actively maintaining the health of the country using tools such as carefully planned cyclic burns. They travelled on an annual cycle around their land, making sure they were next to the waterholes when the magpie geese laid eggs, and up on the escarpment when fruit came into season there. There was nothing random about this - their movements were carefully orchestrated around a six-season calendar, regulated by (amongst other things) the heliacal rising of various stars. So "nomadic" and "hunter-gatherer" in this case are very far removed from "wandering" or "scavenging".

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    28. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ray Norris

      That would be me, not John Clark, who attributed those words to you. I aimed to make clear that you refute the applicability of those words - my apologies if that hasn't come our as clearly as I'd intended. (And sorry John if you're caught in the crossfire through my fault.)

      Nevertheless I stand by my criticism that your refutation is based on the paradigm that relates observation to theory, not the value criteria that relate theory and observation to value judgement. Downward feedback, with value biasing theory, and theory biasing interpretation of observation (paradigm) is a second-order phenomenon, in my view. If you have a problem with a value judgement, it's quite likely that the fault actually primarily lies with the criteria for value judgement, and not further down the chain. And yes there are rational, evidence-based avenues for criticism of value systems.

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    29. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      No I was actually referring to a post by John further up - sometimes it isn't immediately clear which reply relates to which posting.

      The problem with a long conversation like that is that sometimes the focus switches to a secondary point which I've used to support my primary argument. So let me restate my primary point: statements like "Aboriginal people couldn’t count beyond five, wandered the desert scavenging for food, had no civilisation, couldn’t navigate and peacefully acquiesced when…

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  47. John Jeayes

    Environmental campaigner

    I do not know where the author did his research but as a primary school teacher for 40 years I never taught my class that Aborigines could not count past 5.
    Has he never heard of, for instance, The People of the Western Desert kit which is based on the culture of the Pitjantjatjara? I used that when it was issued to NSW schools probably more than two decades ago.

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    1. Victoria Phillis

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Jeayes

      @ John Jeayes 50 years ago in Primary school social studies I remember being taught Aboriginals all lived in bark humpys and other similar incorrect facts. In the same class with me were 2 other Aboriginal students and I had Aboriginal neighbours next door to were we lived at Warragamba Dam all of us in typical 50's standard homes.
      I loved learning but at that age you would have been in big trouble for challenging what the teacher told you. By the end of high school that had changed and University was a great relief to be able to discuss and debate what we were being taught. Aboriginal history has been ignored far too often and the little that was taught a sad indictment on racism of our nation.

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  48. Joe Lane

    Vagrant researcher

    Where to start ....

    No people on earth are primitive, but all of us came out of traditional societies, Scottish or Nordic or Chinese or whatever, which, by force of circumstances and a bit of choice, had developed technology - and most importantly, the technology of knowledge - to very primitive levels. Everywhere, number systems were developed only when people in a group, usually traders or tax-collectors, needed them. In Egypt, geometry was developed precisely when and because they needed…

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    1. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to Joe Lane

      Hi Joe

      There is no debate over whether Aboriginal people could count beyond 2, 5, or whatever. They did, and they needed to for many reasons (e.g. "is their raiding party bigger than ours?", "how many days until the ceremony","how many arrowheads will you trade for this ochre?"). There is very strong evidence from scholars like Harris (see link in main article) and even from scholars like Tindale over 60 years ago. I don't think that is in dispute by anybody familiar with the literature or the evidence.

      What *is* in dispute is how widespread is the demonstrably false belief that no Aboriginal person could count beyond 5. Sadly, that belief seems to be widespread, although declining. But as several people have pointed out above, it was not ubiquitous, even decades ago. Happily, there will always be enlightened and inspirational teachers, and some of us were fortunate enough to be taught by them.

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  49. John Clark

    Manager

    Contributors critical of Gallileo might take into account his location (I imagine) on the Meditteranean with virtually no tides.

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    1. Ray Norris

      Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

      In reply to John Clark

      Or they might read wikipedia: "If this theory were correct, there would be only one high tide per day. Galileo and his contemporaries were aware of this inadequacy because there are two daily high tides at Venice instead of one, about twelve hours apart. Galileo dismissed this anomaly as the result of several secondary causes, including the shape of the sea, its depth, and other factors.[29] Against the assertion that Galileo was deceptive in making these arguments, Albert Einstein expressed the opinion that Galileo developed his "fascinating arguments" and accepted them uncritically out of a desire for physical proof of the motion of the Earth.[30] Galileo dismissed the idea, held by his contemporary Johannes Kepler, that the moon caused the tides.[31] He also refused to accept Kepler's elliptical orbits of the planets,[32] considering the circle the "perfect" shape for planetary orbits."

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    2. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ray Norris

      To be fair, the origin of tides is quite subtle and still eludes most people (sadly including textbook writers.) The idea that the moon pulls the water towards it does indeed naively suggest a bulge of water on the moonward side and a tidal period of 24 hours, as Galileo believed.

      The free motion of Earth (and water) and moon negates this, and it's only the second-order effect of the fact that the pull of the moon's gravity is stronger on the moonward side of the earth than the other side that means that water is pulled up most on the moon side, to a medium degree in between, and to the least degree on the far side, hence the double bulge and the 12-hour period.

      You and I "know" that but Galileo, the Yolngu people and most readers don't. Hopefully that doesn't make them primitive. And in any case Einstein threw that understanding out the curvaceous window, and we might reasonably expect that Einstein's model likewise has no deep value beyond the predictive.

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  50. John Clark

    Manager

    Russell - The origins of tides is not all that subtle, and is widely understood. There are any number of texts and internet references with excellent graphics. You make no mention of the sun that exerts considerable effect - about 5:9. The effects of tides and tidal streams are quite complex, as topography modifies the cyclic wave. In a practical sense, an observer monitoring the the effects in a particular location will see only the impacts on that particular coast in terms of number per day, range and magnitude, and rate of flow. Many (most) coastal dwellers have no real need to have a wider comprehension of the global influences, provided they remain in their home waters. Hence the reference to the Med, where the enclosed body of water is so constrained.

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    1. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Clark

      I beg to differ, John, the origin of tides is one of those topics where only a small fraction of those who think they understand them, actually do, and usually the explanation that has been given to them is constructed to seem plausible while glossing over crucial points. And of the people who do actually understand them, a sizable proportion will be able to skilfully manipulate the mathematical description of the situation without actually being able to connect that ability with the physical intuition…

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    1. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to David Week

      Thanks heaps David Week for sharing Helen Verran’s work.

      So I started looking into her work, and then realised that i had studied the helpful book she was one of the coauthors of:
      "Singing the land Signing the land" … see:→http://singing.indigenousknowledge.org
      —when i was doing Koorie studies under Dr. Eve Fesl’s great directorship and tutelage in 1990 at Monash Unversity.
      —IMHO really good intercultural learning materials … . Jason.

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    2. Lynne Kelly

      Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at LaTrobe University at LaTrobe University

      In reply to David Week

      Thank you for the reminder, David. I have used Helen's work in my research and been very impressed. Some published as Helen Watson.

      "Singing the Land, Signing the Land" is superb.

      I hope there is some way of knowing when the book you refer to is published. I would be very keen to read it.

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  51. Rex Gibbs

    Engineer/Director

    "Just one generation ago Australian schoolkids were taught that Aboriginal people couldn’t count beyond five, wandered the desert scavenging for food, had no civilisation, couldn’t navigate and peacefully acquiesced when Western Civilisation rescued them in 1788."

    You must have gone to a very different school from the one I went to. I was taught there were long trading routes. I was taught that the various peoples from the south coast traded with inland people and that there were trade routes…

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    1. David Week

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Rex Gibbs

      Hi Rex. Sounds exemplary. I know that in the loose way that we chat on sites like this, generalities sound like they're intended to apply to every institution or practice equally. In my mind, there's always some kind of Bell-curve, with pockets of excellence. I think we general talk about the "average" schools.

      I also don't see individual teachers as being racist, either. Though there are individual racists (I was surprised to see a study in which 1/3rd of Queenslanders self-identified as racist…

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  52. Bruce Pascoe

    logged in via Facebook

    Ray Norris has put together a carefully researched analysis of Aboriginal Astronomy. Many of his Conversation critics argue that Aboriginal civilization didn't advance because we didn't invent the wheel etc. but what we did invent was a whole continent agreement to manage the land co-operatively with the result that no land war was necessary. My critics leap on this and point to the evidence that Aboriginal people did commit violence against each other. That is perfectly true but it was not to acquire…

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  53. John Clark

    Manager

    Russell - Now I'm really confused, as I suspect most readers of your post would be. Where exactly do you position yourself with respect to the few who do understand tides, and the majority whom you claim do not? My comment was to clarify the issue, in order that casual readers (ie, tides themselves were not under discussion) would not be misled, in particular the omission of the effects of the sun, and the idea that all tides are semi-diurnal. If there are indeed gaps in the accepted physics of the origins of tides, they have no relevance to the wider population who have no reason to doubt the published literature. Again, I was defending Gallileo on the basis that he may only have had exposure to the Med

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    1. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Clark

      John - I'm defending Galileo on the basis that even when you neglect the additional effects you raise (the Sun, topography, etc), the central effect of the tidal force of the moon is itself more subtle that most people appreciate, because the Earth is an accelerating reference frame. Just go ask some random people, even teachers or even look in textbooks and see how far they get. Your strike rate will be a lot lower than if you ask for an explanation of day and night or even of orbital motion. It takes more than understanding that the moon exerts a gravitational pull - often cited as Galileo's crucial omission. Kepler got that, but still was not able to explain the twelve hour period (which by the way was a documented observation from Galileo's time) without (like Galileo) resorting to a hydrodynamic explanation.

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    1. Danny Rose

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Darren Yorston

      http://www.amazon.com/Triumph-Nomads-History-Aboriginal-Australia/dp/0879510846
      http://treadinglightly.sveiby.com
      Gammage restarted Blainey from 1975, will change the debate forever, certain to become standard tertiary text. Check Sveiby and Skuthorpe for best debunking of Myths about aborigines. Perhaps the elephant in the room is arranged marriages, soon likely to lose their cultural influence, as most aborigines ' marry out'.

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  54. Thomas Barrett

    Unofficial providore

    I find a puzzling lack of sophistication in this article, and the comments. The traditional culture of Papua-New Guinea was certainly much further advanced than Australian culture, in terms of agriculture and domestication of pigs, trading, and construction. Yet in many ways the tribes were more isolated by geographical features than Australian tribes were. Given the proximity of PNG to Australia and easy travel across the Torres Strait, the question that has not been answered is why much more of…

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    1. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Thomas Barrett

      Maybe you're puzzled because you're trapped by your worldview and value system into seeing all human cultures as spread along an axis of "progress"--one with an arrow that points both to virtue and to the future.

      You speak of cultures being "advanced", "sophisticated", making "innovations" and "improving" - and unless I misread your final sentence, consider aboriginal culture to be infantile, once again referring to the supposedly universal cultural ontogeny towards a Western conception of "progress…

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    2. John Clark

      Manager

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      Russell, like Thomas, I am also puzzled, and more so by your reply to him. We seem to be constrained by the rules imposed on the debate to the extent that virtually all descriptors are progressively categorised as unacceptable. If I understand your "paradigm", cultures cannot "progress" or "improve" or innovate, and cannot be compared to the extent that subjects cannot be debated. I fail to understand the need to attribute skills and knowledge to a particular culture when they clearly did not exist. Eg, there seems to be an increasing imperative to claim that remote hunter gatherer cultures were numerate. They were not, for the very obvious reason they had no such need. The self imposed limit of 1,2 many fulfilled their requirements, so why does it matter. They were skilled in those areas that were critical to survival, and had social skills appropriate to their environment.

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    3. Thomas Barrett

      Unofficial providore

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      I approach culture from a social cognitivist theoretical approach. I certainly am able to analyse cultures in a more multivariate approach than an aboriginal vs Western approach, unlike some who write here.
      The culture of Genghis khan was certainly more advanced than the surrounding cultures. I would be so bold as to suggest that had he encountered the aboriginal culture, his culture would have prevailed. I would be so bold as to suggest that the Moghul culture which dominated much of india for…

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    4. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Thomas Barrett

      The point I was trying to make concerning the Romans and slavery is that anyone who tries to understand diversity as deficiency in comparison to their own ideal culture is going to ask the wrong sort of questions, and answer those questions incorrectly, and be puzzled by anyone who approaches other cultures on their own terms. We could easily imagine that Romans, like you, would have judged hunter-gatherer cultures as being unsophisticated, primitive, less advanced and so-forth, on grounds that they lacked many of the attributes of civilised (i.e. Roman) culture. The fact that slavery would have been seen by the Romans as one of those positive attributes should ring some alarm bells about the reliability of this approach. Particularly when slavery is such a close cousin of animal domestication, one of the supposed deficiencies of aboriginal culture that has been highlighted in this discussion.

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    5. Darren Yorston

      Student @ UQ

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      We need to be cautious of utilising the slave analogy with the Romans. Slavery is entirely different in Roman civilisation. The vast majority of our population misunderstand its meaning due to associations with more contemporary historical interpretations. It is not that your wrong, it is just that people may draw conclusions you are not making.

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    6. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Darren Yorston

      Daniel, I can see where you are coming from, but taking people's liberty away to do your work and bidding is slavery.

      Some American southerners treated their slaves very well., as did Romans. But in both cases there were many instances of abuse - gladiators e.g.

      Slaves were a product of the Roman colonial expansion, and were in one sense a cash crop.

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    7. Darren Yorston

      Student @ UQ

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      It is Darren firstly. Secondly, you cannot interchange the two, it is incorrect. You are applying modern bias.

      Slavery in Roman civilisation is not based on ethnicity, it is a social status that individuals can both move into and out off. Gladiators were not all slaves, historical evidence suggests that many gladiators were free men, Roman soldiers were often gladiators as well. Roman slaves held positions and responsibilities that are extremely important and significant. Making a comparison between slavery in antiquity and the USA is incorrect.

      Roman slavery is not the product of Roman colonial expansion, it existed prior to Roman expansion. And whether it is a cash crop or not is historically questionable give the consequences for Rome due to the influx of slaves in the late 2nd Century BCE.

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    8. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Darren Yorston

      Sorry Darren......the Roman empire would not have been able to function without slaves.

      One estimate puts the slave population at 25% of the Roman population. This is slavery an a grand scale, and cannot be isolated in an historic sense.

      Slavery is slavery. Granted many slaves were able to work for their freedom, but at any given time there were perhaps a million slaves across the empire.

      You may choose to have a sliding scale of slavery, but as I said, take away a person's liberty and make them do your dirty work looks like, sounds like and IS slavery.

      It is easy to romanticise the Roman Empire, but at it's heart it could be brutal and savage when it suited.

      Slavery is not a romantic interlude in Roman history, but a intentional and wholesale taking of captives from their many conquests and enslaving them for selfish purposes.

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    9. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      … romanticising the Roman empire … —indeed, and laugh–out–load amusing irony, in terms of the word usages and etymologies—LOL ahahahaa.

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    10. Darren Yorston

      Student @ UQ

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Stephen, your argument is not supported by most historians or anthropologists. Our perception of slavery is based upon the Western enlightenment's view of slavery vs "freedom". Slavery in antiquity is a much more complex topic of citizenship and cultural identity, and is not based upon modern ethno-centric perceptions.

      Your figures of numbers of slaves in the Empire are vastly incorrect.

      And the claim that slaves did all the dirty work is incorrect. Yes they worked in mines, but so did freemen. Yes they worked the land, but so did freemen. Yes they fought in the arena, but so did freemen. Slaves were also actors, doctors, teachers, historians and managers of business including large estates.

      Historians Keith Bradley or Susan Treggiari can provide some historical clarification, or anthropologist Louis Marcelin with respect to the anthropological differences.

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    11. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Darren Yorston

      Darren, some info for you - I actually under-estimated the number of slaves...

      Julius Caesar once sold the entire population of a conquered region in Gaul, no fewer than 53,000 people, to slave dealers on the spot.[

      Roman Society, Roman Life

      Slaves numbering in the tens of thousands were condemned to work in the mines or quarries, where conditions were notoriously brutal.[41] Damnati in metallum ("those condemned to the mine") were convicts who lost their freedom as citizens (libertas…

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    12. Darren Yorston

      Student @ UQ

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Nothing wrong with those figures Stephen. I have used them when I studied the Roman republic at Uni.

      As I said slavery in the ancient world is very different to that which existed in the modern world. As your notes show, there are different types of slaves, with different rights. Slavery is more a matter of social class and citizenship than ethnicity. There is very little evidence to show that Romans considered slaves inferior, they considered some cultures inferior but not the ethnicity of people…

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    13. Peter Hindrup

      consultant

      In reply to Darren Yorston

      Darren: I lived my young years on the East Coast of the North Island, NZ, Maori, one third of the population in Gisborne, a small fishing port — err, The City of Gisborne — 400 miles from anywhere, and a half mile from a major Maori Pa ---- Maori village ---- which was on our way to school – of course we walked — which we were FORBIDDEN to enter, and naturally as kids we did exactly as we were told! :))))

      It was there I saw/heard a well played guitar, a crippled Maori Lad, Reg. There that…

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    14. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Peter Hindrup

      Peter, i can and surely many more people can, understand what you mean.
      I applaud your engaging in sharing your experiences here.
      While from a relatively privileged SE. Melbourne European–Australian family background, some of that same family of mine have been extremely *racialist*, bigoted and hateful (unchristian) people, meanwhile i had the great privilege to go to kindergarten and primary school together with numerous Koorie friends, mutually close friends with one fellow Koorie person. After…

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    15. Darren Yorston

      Student @ UQ

      In reply to Peter Hindrup

      What is the bulk of your post about? What point are your trying to make? I do not know what you are trying to say.

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    16. Peter Hindrup

      consultant

      In reply to Darren Yorston

      Perhaps you ought leave the hallowed halls and go live midst some of the remote communities, both in Australia and elsewhere, and you may, just may, learn that it is only a matter of perspective to claim that western 'civilisation' is superior to the primitives.

      The certainty is if you do not understand, then you would not survive in the conditions in which the so called primitives live.

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    17. Darren Yorston

      Student @ UQ

      In reply to Peter Hindrup

      Excuse me? I did not claim Western civilisation was superior at all.

      I wrote "Until we actually look at these other cultures without applying our own biases and preferences we will never understand them, and will always think them inferior."

      Where in that did I claim Western culture was superior?

      In fact I make the absolute opposite statement. We believe Western culture is superior BECAUSE we view other cultures with certain biases and preferences.

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    18. Lynne Kelly

      Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at LaTrobe University at LaTrobe University

      In reply to Peter Hindrup

      What a wonderful story, Peter. And while the reason what you say is so significant is not recognised, we cannot expect indigenous intellect to be understood.

      My research is on the way in which non-literate cultures - such as the Maori and Australian Aboriginal - store vast amounts of scientific and other pragmatic information in memory. Because they don't write it down, it is stored in oral culture. And the things you describe are part of those memory methods - the oratory, pathways, masses of biological detail stored in the stories, songs and so on. Plus lots of material memory devices. We are missing out on so much by not learning those methods and applying them alongside writing.

      Thank you so much for writing that response. It is lovely.

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    19. Peter Hindrup

      consultant

      In reply to Lynne Kelly

      Thank you Lynne, it is reassuring to know that some understood the point I was making.

      I was privileged to spend many ours listening to the old Maori people, to hear those stories which were important to them, and to hear their quite subtle put downs of what we Pakeha would impose upon them.

      A good deal of this has been lost in the 'new' awareness of Maori, a change that followed the publication of a book: Wash day at the Pa, written and photographed by a Dutch couple, intended for the Education Department. It created such an uproar by the professional Maori associations that the Education department withdrew its support.

      If you can ever lay hands upon a copy it was a clear and accurate depiction of the rural Maori population at the time. -- early sixties I believe.

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    20. Jason Stewart

      Professional practitioner of field botany & ecology, ecological restoration, nature farming and GIS & database integration

      In reply to Jason Stewart

      Professor Don Williams (2009) [1981]
      Exploring Aboriginal Kinship (book and DVD). The Aboriginal
      Australian in north eastern Arnhem Land (in English).
      Winnellie, N.T.: Aboriginal Resource and Development Services Inc.; originally published by the Curriculum Development Centre, Dickson, Canberra, A.C.T.
      ISBN 0642961999
      —the excellent professor’s name i had to recall in the previous comment, and his still available cultural–education published work of intercultural English language understanding of kinship systems, moieties and related, from his work in Arnhem Land.

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  55. Danny Rose

    logged in via Facebook

    Glad to see the conversation continue. I haven't noticed much observation on the isolation of our Australian indigenes from empire-scale conflicts.. They seem to have established a routine of conflict resolution that we could end up benefiting from. Not a hopeless prospect, as various international forums attempt to achieve concensus.

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  56. Ray Norris

    Chief Research Scientist, CSIRO Astronomy & Space Science, & Adjunct Prof., Dept of Indigenous Studies (Warawara), Macquarie Uni at CSIRO

    Postscript:

    My main point in writing this article was to discuss how, despite the abundant solid evidence for many Aboriginal intellectual achievements in astronomy, navigation, agriculture, etc., there is still an implicit assumption amongst many non-Aboriginal Australian people that Aboriginal people are in some way “primitive”. This attitude is best summed up in the widespread (and completely erroneous) belief that Aboriginal people counted something like “one, two, three, many”.

    I have…

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    1. Mark Amey

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ray Norris

      Ray, thank you so much for this article. It came at a good time for me, as I had just rekindled an interest in astronomy, and, through this stumbled across your website, as well as others. Aboriginal astronomy, technology and agriculture strikes me as tremendous fields for study, particularly now as there are still Elders alive to be part of this process.

      Cheers.

      BTW, do you have any plans for formal, or informal courses.e.g. MOOC on this subject??

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