Indigenous Australia and Southern Culture

Jul 17, 2023
Indigenous dancers strike a pose during the Homeground festival - a major annual celebration of aboriginal culture.

In terms of the long-term survival of our species, the ritualisation of war the First Peoples of Australia achieved should be celebrated as a great advancement in human relationship. Rather than just celebrating the longevity and attachment to land of aboriginal people, we need to recognise that all their various cultures achieved one of the greatest advancements of humanity.

The idea of geology affecting culture first came to mind when as a newly minted geologist, I lived in the Land of the Long White Cloud for a year in the ‘70s, searching for my supposed Maori roots. The volcanic, mountainous island arc off the coast of an almost mountain-less continent with some of the oldest rocks on earth seemed to partly explain the marked differences in both their Indigenous and pakeha cultures.

Decades later through my philosophy of science research into Chinese environmental history and culture, I came across an ancient Chinese adage, ‘the water and soil of a place rear the people of that place’, indicating that the Chinese had had similar insights for more than a millennium.

My research has focussed on dili, principles of the earth, and the much-maligned fengshui, wind and water. These involve observing an area in terms of xing, local landform, and shi, the force of the surrounding topography in terms of its mountains and rivers, to perceive the vital qi, life enhancing fertility. Note that qi has been shown scientifically not to exist, but I’ve come to consider it to be much like the imaginary number, the square root of minus one, a concept basic to modern electrical engineering, that is an imaginary idea that aids our understanding of the earth. Particularly insightful with the traditional conception of vital qi is that it follows the ridge line of mountains in veins down to pool where it meets water.

This process was related to the hydrological cycle with clouds rising to meet with mountains, the consequent rainfall creating topsoil and rivers. This was dubbed ‘orography’ by the renowned Chinese geologist, Weng Wenhao, in his 1925 scientific paper on the development of the idea of mountain veins in the history of science in China. The theory was taken to the continental level by the late Tang dynasty (circa 880 CE). The force of the topography was generally directional from north to south and west to east. Thus, the theory still explains the fact that the earth’s largest mountain range provides enough fertility to support the over a billion people in India to the south and over a billion in China to the east.

Nevertheless, even with such fertility or perhaps because of it, China hit the wall environmentally in the mid-18th century with so much famine in the northern provinces that the millennium old central government famine relief system fell apart for two decades and all there was to eat was the bark off trees and the buttocks of dead bodies to paraphrase a text of that time. Mark Elvin in his tome on the environmental history of China shows that this was the culmination of 3,000 years of negation of the wild particularly through deforestation, the engineering of the Grand Canal with its negative effect on the population living on the Yellow River, and warfare and its focus on short term advantage.

War is certainly the most stupid of the apish human activities. If we consider the example of China, it even threatens the long-term sustainability of our species. Yet we tend to equate human intelligence with ability to wage war.

An example can be seen in the markedly different colonial experiences of the Maori and the many and various Australian Indigenous mobs. The Maori made great war as they had had hundreds of years of experience of waging war against each other before the northern hemisphere people arrived. They, thus, received the best deal of any colonised peoples in terms of ownership of land and racial equality. A Maori man even became a professor of anthropology at Yale decades before Indigenous Australians were even allowed to vote. In comparison to the Maori, Indigenous Australians were considered by northern hemisphere peoples to be among the most backward cultures in all of humanity, almost sub-human, because they had ritualised war.

Dili theory would indicate that most of Australia would be less than fertile. It even explains why more than 80% of Australians live between the Great Dividing Range and the eastern coast. However, even though much of Australia suffers from poor soils and lack of water, its flora and fauna of Australia have learnt to thrive in such adverse conditions. After all, a 1979 UNESCO report states that Australian eucalypts had been exported to over 100 countries with nearly 50% to grow where trees had never grown before.

A similar species outlier, as a possible long-term reaction to the comparative poverty of their encompassing landscape, Indigenous Australians with their more than 250 languages managed to ritualise war. The pervasiveness of moiety systems throughout all Australian aboriginal mobs shows the importance of such shared rituals in their various cultures. The ritualisation of war was the reason that the First Fleet was not attacked by the Gadigal people upon landing at Sydney Cove just as on the other side of the continent Stirling and his settlers were not attacked by the Noongar people as they sailed up the Swan River in Western Australia. The Maori on the other hand were chanting ‘come ashore, come ashore, we want to eat you’ as Cook sailed past the New Zealand coast.

In contrast, Australian Indigenous relationship with other peoples involved ritual. Governor Arthur Phillip was ritually speared in the shoulder for the transgressions of the interlopers under his charge. He was not killed, merely speared, as part of the ritual that stymied open warfare. Of course, the Indigenous people soon had to fight back, but their tradition of ritual had a deleterious effect on any hope for victory.

Further evidence for Indigenous Australian’s ritualisation of war can be found in mitogenomic DNA research published in ‘Nature’ in 2017. After initial rapid spread of Indigenous peoples circa 50,000 years ago, there was a continuous marked regionalism up until European colonisation. Specific geographic areas held a continuous presence of genetically different populations. Indigenous attachment to country is real. Moreover, war mongering mobs that usurped other regions as found in Eurasia with groups such as the Mongols, Visigoths or Romans just didn’t exist.

In terms of the long-term survival of our species, this ritualisation of war should be celebrated as a great advancement in human relationship. Rather than just celebrating the longevity and attachment to land of aboriginal people for the upcoming referendum on their constitutional right to a voice to parliament, we need to recognise that all their various cultures achieved one of the greatest advancements of humanity.

‘Recognition’ is a recent monograph by Axel Honneth, a luminary of the Frankfurt School of critical theory. Its theme is reciprocal recognition, an idea developed from Hegel’s ‘being with oneself in another’ through the concept of intersubjectivity. Honneth argues that social life depends on a ‘recognition order’ with an intuitive background of shared purpose for ‘the good’ that affects family, law, & the public realm. He sets this argument within its history of the ideas of three different Western intellectual traditions: French, British and German. The ideas of leading intellectuals such as Rousseau, Sartre, Hume, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Kant, Fichte and Hegel are cited in the development of the concept of recognition. Nevertheless, it is a pity that Honneth didn’t cast his net wider than Europe to include the reciprocal rationality of traditional Indigenous Australian’s ritualisation of war. This is especially so in that rationality is the basis of critical theory and its adherents like Habermas turned to intersubjectivity to try to overcome their despair at the lack of rationality evident in World War II.

The focus on the Western intellectual tradition to understand rationality in the human condition is all too prevalent but somewhat misconstrued. After all, we for example get the concept of zero from the Jain culture, algebra is an Arabic word, and the Cambridge Science and Civilisation in China project is up to its 27th volume. The Chinese philosopher Mozi (470-391 BCE) was arguing from a rational basis that society should be underpinned by universal love well before the metaphysically based argument of the Christians, which has seemingly allowed for war more readily.

Nevertheless, even if we broaden the focus to the northern hemisphere’s east and west, we lose any understanding of the south. With the perception of land creating culture, not only do we need to recognise the great achievements of the traditional Indigenous mobs, but we also need to recognise that those born here of non-traditional Indigenous heritage are imbued with the geographies of the southern hemisphere. For want of a better description I dub this group the Modern Indigenous. They are born of the land that looks north to the sun. Their ancestors may have been from the east or west of the northern hemisphere, but they are of the south, a continuation of the southern culture of over 50,000 years.

The tenets of the sociology of science require that I describe my personal position in this argument. My mother’s family traces back to Henry Hacking, quartermaster on the Sirius of the First Fleet. My father’s family traces back to George Silas, a Malaitan Solomon Islander, who walked down from Queensland to Sydney, where he married a Scottish/ Maori woman who gave birth to my grandmother in Balmain hospital in 1908.

I have argued for a recognition of southern culture academically for well over a decade. The land of Australia has created different cultures here to those of their northern ancestors. On the positive side, we have we have mateship and egalitarianism. If you live in a desert-that-doesn’t-look-like-a-desert, you need to work together for survival. The American ‘Jonny Appleseed’ mindset, based on an abundance of topsoil and water, just doesn’t work here. Moreover, the lack of vital qi in Australia has forced greater focus on science and politics. Meteorology, for instance, started here as a serious science because the northern concepts of summer, spring, autumn, and winter just didn’t fit well here. Democracy would also be enhanced in the northern hemisphere if our compulsory and preferential voting systems were used to ensure full participation of the populace and thus create greater stability.

The negative upshot of the lack of vital qi has seen the creation of close-hearted groups such as One Nation with its fear of the other. The precedent was the northern hemisphere inspired cultural chauvinism of the White Australia Policy. But still the diggers on the 19th century gold fields couldn’t do without their Chinese tucker, which became just another facet of southern culture, so much so that Chinese chefs and market gardeners were excused the major strictures of the policy.

A chance meeting with an astrophysicist from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Zhang Chengmin, reinforced my convictions about the south. He had lived under the Dish in Parkes for over a year and had spent a similar amount of time working under a similar Dish in Brazil, so also thought of southern culture as being more than a metaphor. We ended up co-writing a paper arguing from the perspective of world systems theory, dili theory, the environmental history of China, and that it isn’t sustainable over the long term for the power structures of the northern hemisphere to keep sucking resources from the south.

Note that I am in no way arguing for Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ in traditional Indigenous cultures. As with all human cultures there were foibles. Even the great positives of the moiety system had a negative effect on freedom to love, and patriarchy was the preferred system. Rather than noble, a word very much associated with the European class system, manly, the word used by those on the First Fleet, is more apt. It is still remembered in the name of the Sydney suburb. Moreover, savage is more apposite as a description of the northern hemisphere people with the savagery that they showed when slaughtering the aborigines as they rode them down on horseback throughout the 19th and well into the 20th centuries. No wonder the National Party has come out against the Voice to Parliament. The vast tracts of land that are owned by the Party’s power brokers historically stem from such murderous practices.

But it should also be remembered that immigrants comprise over 50% of the Australian population. From a dili perspective, this has a very positive effect. Immigrants generally come from places with a much greater amount of vital qi, the vitality of which they bring with them. Multiculturalism is bliss. Yet because of the tendency as with the rest of the population for immigrants to concentrate in cities, there is the danger of their lack of recognition of the land. Too many mistakes have been made here by those bringing a northern hemisphere understanding of land with them from salinisation through rabbit plagues, to the deforestation of the red cedar.

A salutary lesson from history is the example of Burke and Wills. Neither were from Australia nor had great experience of the land and in their distress even refused the succour of local aborigines, which led to their sad demise. Twenty years later George Ernest Morrison (later of Peking) successfully walked from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Melbourne, but he had been born here and had honed his skills with earlier expeditions canoeing down the Murrumbidgee and walking from Geelong to Adelaide. Taking time to understand our physical surroundings with humility cuts a necessary swathe through the hubris of humanity.

Later this year, we decide through a referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament to enable our original peoples to decide on matters directly affecting them rather than have the powers that be direct their lives. In a way, it’s a referendum on our southern culture, whether we should cringe and cower in the antipodes, kowtowing to the eastern and western powers of the northern hemisphere: the US, Europe, the UK and China, who would seem to be more interested in securing our resources than us. We and our Indigenous peoples deserve better. Their recognition in our Constitution would be a positive start to understanding our actual place in the world.

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