This exploratory article is so open to misinterpretation that I must be crazy to want to publish it, but I hope it hints, however dimly, at some interesting ideas about culture and heritage. Culture and heritage are potentially wonderful resources that we can play with and develop; but often they seem to be bound around us like shackles, or thrust between us like walls.
It is a commonplace of public conversation in Australia that Aboriginal people have more than 40,000 years of cultural heritage (currently the oldest dated Aboriginal sites go back 65,000 years). But so do we all: every human being has a cultural heritage that goes back into the mists of prehistory. What is the special feature of the Aboriginal cultural heritage that makes references to its antiquity so compelling?
Is it the idea that this heritage is continuous? There is a sense in which everyone’s heritage is continuous, in that every human being is born into a social context that predates them and which has evolved in an unbroken chain back to the very first human society (and yes, even beyond). There are other senses in which everyone’s heritage is discontinuous, partly because individuals are frail repositories of cultural knowledge, and partly because the vicissitudes of human existence mean that there are relatively frequent disruptions to cultural continuity.
- If the English can no longer trace the links between their culture and the culture of the proto-Europeans who first walked into central Europe from Asia, is there cultural continuity or discontinuity? The links are real even if they unknown.
- If you cannot name your great-grandmother or describe her attitude to moral issues, is there cultural continuity or discontinuity? Her influence may still be upon you.
- If warfare thrusts you out of your homeland and kills half your community, is there cultural continuity or discontinuity? You still exist, harrowed by the experience and unlikely to forget.
- If a child from Cambodia is adopted by a white Australian family and raised in Sydney, is there cultural continuity or discontinuity? Or both? Does the child inherit more or less cultural heritage through this development?
Returning to Aboriginal cultural heritage, a moment’s reflection reveals that it is marked by all the discontinuities that affect other cultural heritages. Nonetheless, is it a special quality of Aboriginal cultural heritage that it was for so long an unmixed, pure, and isolated culture? This may not be an accurate characterisation. What is actually known is that Aboriginal culture is diverse, pluralistic, and in touch with other cultures through trade and friendship. Like other cultures, Aboriginal culture has evolved through time. It is dynamic and inventive. This can be clearly seen now in the Aboriginal arts, where each generation is creating new directions, but there is no reason to suppose that Aboriginal culture was static and unchanging in the time before the European conquest of the continent.
Is it the special signature of Aboriginal heritage that it is linked exclusively to one country? Definitely not, if by country we mean Australia. Aboriginal ‘country’ is always more specific, and the continent of Australia is covered by hundreds of different ‘language, tribal or nation groups’ that are culturally diverse. What is currently known about this history is not detailed, but it seems likely that groups moved across the landscape over time, morphed and changed, so that the present identity of country and culture is likely to be more recent (possibly much more recent) than the oldest date of Aboriginal settlement in Australia. What the Europeans found as they came across the land was a number of modern societies, each one with diverse (unwritten) histories and an undated connection with the country they occupied at that time.
So when someone says that Aboriginal people have been here for 65,000 years, what ‘here’ do we refer to? What is the common thread that connects the hundreds of different groups from across the continent? What is the connection between their ‘country’ and their culture, and what is the connection between those things and the broader concept of ‘Aboriginal Australian’?
The real definer of Aboriginal culture may not be its ancient origins, but its relatively recent ‘otherness’. The conversation about Aboriginal culture only began when Europeans invaded Australia and began to disrupt and destroy a diversity of cultural groups that the Europeans did not even recognise. In the process, an impoverished but unified notion of Aboriginality came into being. In self defence, the Aboriginal others embraced their new identity, now based on a real common interest to resist invasion. This was not a replacement for their existing cultural identities (although in some cases existing cultural identities were partly or even wholly erased), but Aboriginality may have become an envelope for a new political and cultural unity. As disruption and dispossession proceeded, cultural concepts from diverse communities were blended, the creativity of people who did not intend to disappear were applied to the new circumstances, and a new modern entity entered the political discourse: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
The Indians have been in India since the dawn of time (this is shorthand for ‘since Homo sapiens walked out of Africa into the Indian subcontinent’). We do not say that Indians have a 40,000 or 100,000 year continuous cultural tradition (although they do) because the layers of migration, colonisation, cultural transformation that have washed over that part of the world are so huge. But people have ‘always’ been there, passing on their relationship with the land from parent to child, and participating in the cultural changes that have made India the culture it is today.
The Africans have been in Africa since the human species evolved. Why do we not speak of any (or all) African culture as representing 800,000 years of cultural heritage? We don’t because the people who live there have moved, have changed, have been influenced by human beings who left Africa and then returned thousands of years later. All Africans (actually, all human beings) are children of the one originating culture of the one originating clan who started the human experiment, but nobody lays claim to this heritage, because it doesn’t win any arguments. Other, more recent, claims have greater cultural or political power.
These two, almost contradictory, things are true of all human beings:
- We all participate equally in the continuity that tracks back to the very first human beings who ever existed. People did not evolve twice. We are all ancient in our origins. If length of cultural heritage is something to be proud of, we can all be equally proud.
- We are all unique in the particulars of our cultural inheritance, because each one of us has slightly different forebears. Each one of us has a unique ancestry. The many shorthand expressions (‘Aboriginal’, ‘White’, ‘Hindu’, ‘Greenie’, ‘Bingham’, etc) that are used to bundle allotments of people together are all approximations that are useful for some purposes, but actually false and misleading more often than not. Only a mindless bigot thinks that all [insert shorthand group name here] are the same, or even that all [insert shorthand group name here] share a common characteristic. People are individuals: the cultural mix that goes into each individual is unique. You can call someone a [insert shorthand group name here], but you can’t tell from that where they come from, what they believe, what colour they are, what money they earn, what party they vote for, how smart they are or whom they like to hang out with.
Valorising group labels is all about contesting power and privilege. A group is downtrodden: the oppressors attribute negative qualities to the label of the oppressed, and this helps to validate the oppression. Sometimes the oppressed repudiate the label altogether, but often the strategy of resistance is to embrace the label and attribute positive qualities to it, to counter the negatives of prejudice with what could be called ‘positive prejudice’. Personally, I look forward to the day when people chuck all this groupthink out as a bad job, but this of course is just me being absurd.
© 2018 Craig Bingham
 A good article about the 65,000 year date and what this means is: Griffiths B, Russell L, Roberts R. When did Australia’s human history begin? Australian Geographic 17 November 2017. https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/history-culture/2017/11/australias-human-history/
 My personal favourite is the work of Gordon Bennett (1955–2014), which references Aboriginal culture, engages with racial politics, and is distinctively personal, original and creative. His painting Possession Island (1991) can be seen in the foyer of the Museum of Sydney, or online at http://artasiapacific.com/News/GordonBennettPioneerIndigenousAustralianArtistDiesAt58 .
 I am endebted for my limited understanding of this history to the book by Tom Griffiths, ‘The Art of Time Travel’ (Black Inc, 2016), which discusses the work of Henry Reynolds, Mike Smith and others. See also ‘Did Aboriginal and Asian people trade before European settlement in Darwin?’ (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-01-16/aboriginal-people-asians-trade-before-european-settlement-darwin/9320452).
 See the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia (https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/aiatsis-map-indigenous-australia) for an idea of the diversity of Indigenous cultural groups, based on published sources available between 1988–1994. The makers of the map write:
The map is not definitive and is not the only information available which maps language and social groups. See also AUSTLANG.
The information on which the map is based is contested and may not be agreed to by some traditional custodians. The borders between groups are purposefully represented as slightly blurred. They do not claim to be exact.
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Word games [memoir]