History and Technology
What follows is an extended example of an Aboriginal perspective applied to a basic historical and economic analysis. You will notice that the content is actually mostly about the history of Europe – this is to illustrate that Aboriginal perspectives do not come from Aboriginal topics, but from Aboriginal approaches to topics. So for the next twenty minutes you will see an Aboriginal perspective on recent world history, a perspective that is drawn from basic Aboriginal modalities like story-telling and foundational values and priorities such as connection to place and family.
These three things – story, place and family are aspects of all Indigenous cultures that most people should be familiar and comfortable with, and all should be able to understand easily. So we use these basic aspects of our perspectives here to demonstrate the effectiveness, empowerment and academic rigor of a genuine Aboriginal viewpoint. You will notice how this perspective elicits an extremely high opinion of our culture and an expectation of intellectual rigor. At times we have injected some bias into the story – this also has a purpose – our culture is generally very welcoming of outsiders, so the bias has been added to ensure that all staff can feel what it is like to be excluded and perhaps misunderstood as a cultural group.
For most of human history, Aboriginal Australia has led the world in both technology and sustainability (of social and environmental systems). We were the first to have ground-edge stone tools. The oldest pottery in the world has been found on our country (an industry that our elders tell us was abandoned millennia ago because it was not ecologically sustainable). Most people are unaware that there is large-scale engineering (massive stone structures) still present in Australia that predates the pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge in Britain. These include complex systems of fish-traps and aquaculture farms, as well as astronomical calendars built on a grand scale (e.g. at Mount Rothwell in Victoria.)
We are the most adaptive and innovative Peoples on the planet, having survived several ice-ages and vast cycles of climate change and continental shifts. Our cultures are not static or primitive, but have always been constantly changing and dynamic. The idea of unchanging and timeless ways has only been imposed on us recently by colonists. Another recent myth is the idea that we have existed in isolation in small tribes for most of our history. This is untrue, as we have always traveled vast distances for trade, adoption, marriage, ritual and the collaborative production of new knowledges and technologies. Nor has this been limited to local exchange – for at least a thousand years we have been trading with Asia through Indonesia, probably much longer if you consider the fossil record of dingoes having been introduced from Asia around seven thousand years ago. We have been part of an international economy for a lot longer than two hundred years.
If you consider Western civilisation within this historical scope, you will see that it represents only a tiny, recent blip in the history of human development. It began only a few thousand years ago with Alexander of Macedon, although if we consider teachers to be important, we should also give some credit to his tutor Aristotle, as well as this tutor’s own teachers. Aristotle learned from Plato, who learned from Socrates. Socrates taught mostly by asking questions, and Plato bridged the gap between oral and print language by writing all his works as dialogues. But Aristotle changed everything when he invented a thing called “The Growth Metaphor” which represented a whole new way of thinking about the world. In its most basic form it was the idea of “beginning, middle and end”. The reason this was so incredible at the time is that prior to this most metaphors were connected in some way to concrete reality, or place or nature or relationships or spiritual entities. But this new metaphor was just an empty idea floating in space, with no imagery or connectedness to any reality, not even in the spiritual realm. Beginning, middle and end of what? Of anything, or everything! It was a new way of thinking, a kind of detached, generalisable knowledge.
Alexander of Macedon, as a student of Aristotle, took this learning to heart. When he began his massive campaign to conquer “the East”, he set out along a sacred pathway established by one of his creation hero ancestors – a path that we in Australia would call a songline. He followed the path that a god called Dionysius took when he/she originally travelled to the west from India. He began a large-scale practical application of Aristotle’s new idea of disconnected, generalized knowledge. Wherever he found knowledge, objects, culture, technology or practices that he liked, he removed them from their local contexts, sanitized them, simplified them and generalized them for universal usage as commodities. Basically, he was disconnecting knowledge from localized or concrete realities and transforming it into something portable and saleable. His power and success came from this idea, not just from the quickness of his spears. This was the beginning of the very recent project of Westernism.
Following Alexander’s death, his generals spread out and created their own mini-kingdoms, and his project of Westernism was passed on to others who revered him, including the Romans. The Romans set about conquering parts of Europe, Asia and Africa, removing, simplifying and commodifying new knowledge wherever they found it. They inflicted this epistemological violence on the Britannic tribes, as well as other European nations who very quickly spread it throughout the rest of the globe soon after. Europe was not simply plundering the world for natural resources – it was seeking new knowledges, which is why they called this time “The Age of Discovery”. About five hundred years ago, a Frenchman went to Africa and took away an ancient numeric system, which was then absorbed into a European tradition called Alchemy. Today that African number system is known as binary code, which is the basis for all the digital technologies the world currently enjoys. In fact, most of the technology currently enjoyed across the globe has been derived from Indigenous knowledge.
For example, three quarters of what we eat is food technology developed by Native Americans. In Australia however, our Indigenous food and medicine technologies have been ignored locally and exploited by overseas nations. For example, most of the world’s eucalyptus oil is produced in China, kangaroo apples for birth control pills are grown in Russia, macadamia nuts are mostly grown in Hawaii, and so forth.What is incorrectly known as “White Australia” truly does have a black history. Australia even owes its national sport, Australian Rules, to an Aboriginal ballgame that was combined with Gaelic football back in the early days of colonization. Not to mention the iconic Aussie traits of mate-ship, stoicism and wit, which are all heavily influenced by Aboriginal culture. Most of the built environment in Australia is made from resources extracted from Aboriginal land, and many of the main roads and highways are built on tracks and trails millennia old. (These same trails were the ones “explorers” were guided along by Aboriginal people during the very recent “discovery” and conquest of the continent).
We need to stop reinforcing these false dichotomies of “two-way” knowledge, whereby computers, technology, science and built environments are “white knowledge” and sport, arts and nature are “black knowledge”. David Unaipon did not become a famous Aboriginal scientist and inventor by making johnny cakes. And as far as I know, Captain Cook didn’t write about his “discoveries” on a laptop. These technologies are things we’ve developed together, many international cultures collaborating with combined economies, lands, knowledge, resources and relationships (even if those relationships have been abusive at times). And Australia’s Indigenous peoples have been there for all of it. So we have just as much claim to these new global knowledges and technologies as anybody else, and as such need to be asserting these as valid components of our cultural reality. These things are not “white” – in fact, Europeans have no valid claim to sole development and ownership of any of it. The history of science, maths and technology is a pluralistic one. The world’s scientific organizations now formally acknowledge these shared contributions in their charters, so perhaps it is time for educators to do the same – not just when they teach history and Aboriginal studies, but in science and maths as well.
There is another branch of European history that is worth examining here, as it has had the most impact on Australia and possibly the world in recent years. It actually began in Germany about 5000 years ago, with a forest people who revered their environment so much that they divided their tribe into small groups, so they would not have to destroy large sections of their sacred wood to live in. These small family groups consisted of a man, a woman, 2 kids and a dog. This was the beginning of the nuclear family.
Following Roman disruption to their forest lifestyle, these and other Nordic peoples began raiding coastal communities all over Europe in order to survive. They called this activity “Viking”, which some people mistakenly thought was the name of their people. Some of these Nordic peoples returned to their homes and improved their agrarian skills in order to survive, while others settled in Britannia, specifically in the part that is now known as “England”. What emerged was an Anglo-Saxon culture that was quite distinct from the Celtic communities that inhabited the rest of Britain, and still do today (many still speaking their Indigenous language which is Gaelic).
What made these Anglo-Saxons different was their family structure. Strangely enough, they were the only People in the world still practicing the Nordic forest People’s habit of forming nuclear families. Even in Germany this no longer existed. But in that tiny Anglo-Saxon colony, an entire system of culture, law, economy, language and relationships developed around this unique family structure.
The language changed – for example there was suddenly no need to distinguish between your maternal and paternal relatives, or different kinds of siblings, and so forth, and so it became one of the only languages in the world with a single term for relations such as cousins. The lack of close bonds and interactions with extended family made such linguistic distinctions irrelevant. Additionally, the trade focus (and of course the invasion histories) of the culture ensured that the language absorbed words from many different languages at a phenomenal rate, resulting in one of the most multi-cultural creoles in human history – English. It is important to note here that, unlike other human languages, this language did not emerge from a place or a relationship with the land, but rather from disconnected, individualized encounters with traders and raiders over a number of centuries.
The laws and economy of the culture were also changed by the Anglo-Saxon focus on a small family group led by a male individual. For example, a unique set of laws was invented whereby groups or families no longer owned property, money and land, but instead these were owned and inherited only by male individuals. This individualization of wealth was the beginning of British mercantile capitalism, which would soon change the world forever. Contrary to popular belief, this system actually predates the industrial revolution, and was in full force during what is currently known as the Dark Ages.
Problems emerged within a few short centuries. Traditional connections to community and place broke down as land became owned by individuals rather than families and tribes. People became placeless, disconnected. Family assets were either endlessly divided amongst siblings until the property all but disappeared, or else it was handed down to the oldest male, making community outcasts of the younger siblings who went on to create terrible social problems. Eventually massive criminal classes and underclasses developed, which threatened to destroy the very system that created them. The solution was to send these wretches to overseas colonies in the “New World”, simultaneously expanding markets and ridding England of the burdens of their displaced masses.
Although the English rulers insisted on these new colonists making treaties with the First Nations of the “New World”, and on purchasing land and resources fairly and according to the law of the land (as well as the law of the Mother Country), the colonists were disinclined to follow these instructions, particularly in Australia. Instead they acted outside of their own laws, including even the exploitative Laws of Discovery that were globally recognized during that era of massive land-grabs, and formed an illegal colony which arbitrarily laid claim to an entire continent, sight unseen. This staggeringly ignorant and immoral action was made possible only by the predominance of placeless identities that had recently emerged in England as a result of the laws of individual property ownership, arising from the ancient German tradition of the nuclear family.
The refusal of this illegal colony to recognize the sovereignty of Australia’s First Peoples, and the outright denial of the need for a legally binding treaty, created a kind of blind-spot in the perception of colonists towards the land and the People of the land. As a direct result of both this blind spot and their Anglo-Saxon legacy of placeless identities, their actions to date have been characterized by a blatant disregard of the very Indigenous knowledge that might help them thrive better in this part of the world.
For example, there is currently a massive hole in the Australian economy (shared by all English-speaking countries), that puts the country at a disadvantage in comparison to nations like Germany and France. In those countries there are many mid-sized family businesses that are owned by clans and family groups rather than individuals, existing as components of stable family estates, and these form the backbone of the economy. If Australian colonists were simply to adopt an Indigenous orientation to extended family, and change their law and economy accordingly, they might also be able to strengthen their economy in this way, rather than relying on the limited economic future offered by the (currently lucrative) exploitation of natural resources. The development of extended families would also greatly reduce spending on social welfare, as the family would provide the “safety net” that the state is currently funding.
The intangible knowledge, values, structures and systems of Aboriginal culture has remained unrecognized and unexamined by the current dominant culture of Australia, a culture of refugees that has so far been characterized by an inability to connect with place. Arguably, the survival of this remarkable culture into the future will depend on their capacity to connect with the land and the People of the land, as they should have done from the beginning.
As you can see, a genuine Aboriginal perspective lends itself to much stronger engagement with and analysis of mainstream cultural content than might be offered by the study of cultural artifacts and “traditional” practices. Paradoxically, an Aboriginal analysis of a foreign economy actually produces a more culturally authentic perspective than the performance and study of a basic traditional dance would. This is because a traditional dance in a school setting will always be framed from a colonial perspective. Aboriginal culture is only authentic in an Aboriginal context. But a genuine Aboriginal viewpoint – that is authentic in any context, anywhere in the world.