Rediscovered: The Best Aboriginal Books

Prehistory of ozSome 35,000 years before Stonehenge mysteriously appeared on the Salisbury Plains, there was human life Down Under, in the outback and in the bush. Before markings were made at Chauvet or Lascaux, before the pyramids and before Rome rose and fell, what is now known as Australia was inhabited by pockets of tribal hunter-gatherers. They went about their business, surviving one of the harshest environments on Earth, for thousands of years until the white man came along, thrusting them from an ancient world and into a modern one.

For one of the oldest known (and surviving) civilisations, there is surprisingly little written about ancient Aboriginal history. Certainly this is true compared to other ancient civilisations, and it is especially true of publications released in the last 10 years. The overwhelming majority of historic reference material, and of scholarly writing in the fields of archaeology and anthropology, were written and released in the 1980s and the 1990s.

I suspect, though, that unlike the caesars or the pharaohs, tribal hunter-gatherers just arent glamorous enough for mainstream publishers.

On the other hand, there has been a recent mini-boom in the publication of (excellent) books cataloguing the resurgence in the various Aboriginal Australian art movements such as that of the Papunya.

And there is an increasing glut of (again, excellent) children’s books covering Aboriginal culture and the stories of the Dreamtime. These are important books, and ensure that the culture and beliefs of these ancient people are passed down to new generations of Australians (and others), and that children learn that Aboriginal culture was and still is about more than boomerangs and didgeridoos.

Documenting Personal Stories

Building upon this educational theme, there is nothing short of a flood of modern memoirs on Aboriginality. These are stories of survival from children of the ‘stolen generations‘ , Aboriginal survivors of British colonialism, the dispossessed reclaiming a heritage lost. The major publishers in Australia all have a cut of this action, with many of these titles making it onto school reading lists and becoming modern publishing phenomena (show me an Australian teenager of the 90s who hasnt read Sally Morgans My Place).

songlinesAnother mainstay of school reading lists (and for good reason) is Bruce Chatwins 1987 classic, The Songlines. Chatwin in one of earliest and best examples of travel writing exposing the heart of a culture travels across Australia, following the stories of the songlines. These invisible and ancient tracks connect Aboriginal communities, and it was along these lines that the oral traditions of Aborigines thrived as the songs and stories of the Dreamtime made their way from tribe to tribe.

These two books, probably more than any others, helped inspire a generation of Aboriginal people to record their own stories on paper. Aboriginal culture had previously been largely confined to oral traditions, and perhaps this has something to do with the lack of accessible recent history books on the older aspects of the culture. I suspect, though, that unlike the caesars or the pharaohs, tribal hunter-gatherers just arent glamorous enough for mainstream publishers.

Even so, you would think that the beauty and international acclaim of such national treasures as Uluru (Ayers Rock) or Kakadu National Park, both deep in ancient heritage, would have inspired at least a few recent coffee table tomes of note. But no, the offerings are limited and, well, pretty uninspiring. Even Noughties academia has gone quiet on pre-colonial Aboriginal history, culture, art and archaeology.

To The Bargain Bins

Antiquarian bookshops such as the Cornstalk have an interesting range of books on these subjects, otherwise and with the exception perhaps of Peter Hiscocks thorough The Archaeology of Ancient Australia (2007) you need to dig deep in the out-of-print book bins or wade through university library shelves for more insight into the origins or Aboriginal Australia.

original australiansArchaeologist Josephine Flood is among the most prolific writers on the subject, with
Archaeology of the Dreamtime: The Story of Prehistoric Australia and Its People,
The Riches of Ancient Australia: An Indispensable Guide for Exploring Prehistoric Australia
and Rock Art of the Dreamtime: Images of Ancient Australia all released in the 1990s to varying levels of acclaim. The Original Australians: Stories of the Aboriginal People is her most recent offering (2006).

Prehistory of Australia (1999) by John Mulvaney and Johan Kamminga is perhaps a more respected text, exploring the history of the continent and its people. It outlines why this often forgotten archaeological Eden has so many sites that are vital to the understanding of the evolution of man.

Tony Swains 1993 work A Place for Strangers: Towards a History of Australian Aboriginal Being, meanwhile, is a study of the impact of outsiders on the ancient culture. He especially concentrates on Aboriginal myth, rituals and philosophy.

An often quoted and important anthropological study is Continent of Hunter-Gatherers: New Perspectives in Australian Prehistory by Harry Lourandos. Its wide-ranging and detailed analysis argues that ancient Aboriginal societies were complex, dynamic and revolutionary.

A more widely read and reprinted text is the conservative historian Geoffrey Blaineys Triumph of the Nomads: A History of Aboriginal Australia, which became a film of the same name. It was Blainey who coined the term black armband view of history, which was a critical assessment of those who accused previous Australian governments of inflicting genocide on Aboriginal people.

So, no shortage of reading just not many recent releases to challenge previous works or progress debates. Or perhaps the move towards arts publishing, memoirs and works of children’s literature is progress in itself.