Australia for the Australians

by Colin Groves

© all rights reserved.

On ABC radio’s Ockham’s Razor, April 7th, 2002, David Tribe told us how very nice the white Australians had been towards the Aboriginal population. Captain Cook claimed the continent for the British Empire only with their consent, and diseases to which they had no immunity carried them off so that the land was free for white settlement. In the nineteenth century whites were punished for doing bad things to Aborigines, just as Aborigines were punished for doing bad things to whites. In the twentieth century the Aborigines’ children weren’t actually taken away from them, it was really the parents who gave them away and, my word, didn’t they nourish because of it! And this was more than they deserved, really, because, as David Tribe informed us, the Aborigines were not the first Australians at all; no, the wavy-haired Australoids had previously displaced the really truly original inhabitants, the woolly-haired Negritos, pushing the remnants into marginal areas like New Guinea, Tasmania and the Atherton Tablelands of Far North Queensland.

All right, all right, the killer epidemics, probably smallpox, that depopulated the Murray in the 1790s and 1820s are facts of history. But so are incitements to depopulate the continents in quite a different way, such as the Rev. William Walker’s address to the Wesleyan Missionary Society, in 1821, informing them that the Aborigines were the children of Ham, “the progeny of him who was cursed to be ‘a servant of servants to his brethren'”. The editor of the Sydney Herald in 1838 told his readers that it was perfectly all right to take the land away from such people: “The British people found a portion of the globe in a state of waste – they look possession of it; and they had a perfect right to do so; under the Divine authority, by which man was commanded to go forth and people and till the land”.

The settlers were, meantime, doing more than taking the Aborigines’ land away. Lt.W.H.Breton, R.N., in 1833, advised that one had to make a strong impression on them: “…for if only one or two be killed, the sole effect is to instigate them to revenge their companions…” And indeed whites had been killing Aborigines, often with the excuse that the Aborigines had speared their cattle, for at least a quarter of a century before that – yet the very first hanging of whites for a massacre of Aboriginal people (at Myall Creek) was not until in 1838, and that hanging was in the teeth of the opposition of white settlers – one of whom, as reported in The Monitor shortly afterward, promised, “We are going on a safer game now… we are poisoning the Blacks; which is much safer; and serve them right too”. The last documented massacre of Aborigines was as late as the 1930s – within the lifetime of people now living.

We’ll overlook these little titbits, because after all they belong to the black armband view of history, and we have all been enjoined to get over that. Instead, I’ll talk about those unfortunate Negritos. “Negrito”, which is Spanish for “little Negro”, is the name often used to designate three different peoples living in Southeast Asia: in the Andaman Islands, the Malay Peninsula, and the Philippines. They are small-statured (adult men average 150 cm or thereabouts), black-skinned, and woolly-haired. They look very unlike other Southeast Asians, and to some eyes they have an African appearance; in the first half of the twentieth century a common view was that they and the African Pygmies were somehow related, perhaps even as the original inhabitants of the tropical Old World. Other researchers, such as Julian O’Dea, have pointed out that they all live in tropical rainforest, and have argued that their small size and perhaps other features are adaptations to this kind of habitat. This calls into question not only whether the Negritos are in any way related to the African Pygmies, but whether they are really even related to each other.

Today the Andaman Islands, which are Indian territory, have been populated by people from mainland India, beginning with a convict settlement in about 1880, and the Negritos there have declined in number to just a few hundred. The Negrito peoples of the Malay Peninsula, called Semang, seem never to have numbered more than a couple of thousand. Only the so-called Negritos in the Philippine islands of Luzon, Mindanao and Palawan, are still numerically and culturally flourishing, or relatively so.

And are there actually Negritos in Australia? There are certainly very small people, often with tightly curled hair, in the rainforests of Far North Queensland. The unmixed Aboriginal population of Tasmania, too, had what has been called “woolly” hair, but were not extremely dark nor, on average, small. But are they, in any real sense, Negritos, and does their presence constitute evidence for a population that preceded the basic Aboriginal population in Australia?

In the 1930s, anthropologists commonly held that there had once been “pure races”, and variation in today’s populations was due to intermixture. It was in this climate that Joseph Birdsell proposed that Australia had been populated successively by three races. First came the Negritos. These were then swept aside by the Murrayians, a heavily built brown-skinned wavy-haired people, who pushed the Negritos to Far North Queensland, but in Tasmania intermixed with them. Finally came the slender, black, also wavy-haired Carpentarians, who restricted the Murrayians to the Southeast of the continent, and populated most of the tropical north.

Birdsell’s hypothesis, unfortunately, got into textbooks in the 1940s and 50s, and so into many people’s minds, whence it has proved impossible to eradicate. Yet to the end of his long life, Birdsell never produced any detailed evidence for it. It was tested many times. Andrew Abbic, from the 1950s to the 1970s, produced a good deal of evidence of the essential homogeneity of the Aboriginal population. Neil Macintosh and Stan Larnach examined skulls of people from the rainforests of Far North Queensland, and were quite unable to distinguish them from other Aboriginal Queenslanders. Colin Pardoc found that Tasmanian skulls were as close to those from the south-eastern mainland as if the Bass Strait did not exist. None of these investigators could find any evidence that there had ever been more than a single Aboriginal race. Murray valley people are lighter-skinned than those from the Gulf of Carpentaria because they live in temperate climates, just as northern Europeans are lighter-skinned than those from the Mediterranean. Far North Queenslanders are small because they live in rainforests, just as are the African Pygmies. So let us put it bluntly: there is no a scrap of evidence for any prior Negrito population in Australia.

But at the same time as one “pure-race” hypothesis was hitting the dust, another was rising. Ancient Australian skeletons were being discovered in Victoria and southern New South Wales, and they seemed to show great diversity. None of them were Negritos, Murrayians or Carpentarians, but those from Keilor and Lake Mungo were like modern Aboriginal people, whereas some (not all) of those from Kow Swamp had very flat, sloping foreheads, and some people even likened them to so-called “Java Man”, Homo erectus, that had preceded modern humans (Homo sapiens) in the region to the Northwest of Australasia at least as late as 300,000 years ago. Unfortunately, although Alan Thorne, the describer of the Kow Swamp skeletons, never actually said that they were Homo erectus, the idea that an extremely primitive people preceded the present Aboriginal people in Australia, and was eliminated by them, seems to have seeped into some folks’ consciousness just like the Negritos did. Negritos or Homo erectus – either way, the Aborigines were not the first possessors of Australia so the land doesn’t really belong to them and the whites needn’t feel too bad about dispossessing them. Really good fodder, this, for the One Nation Party, and the Prime Minister needn’t feel he has to say “sorry”.

But even the idea that Kow Swamp and Mungo were different peoples now seems questionable, though it is still controversial. Artificial cranial deformation altering the shapes of your babies’ heads, either grossly or mildly – is an extraordinarily widespread custom, throughout the world, even today. Several specialists – Don Brothwell in the 1970s, Peter Brown in the 1980s, Susan Anton and Karen Weinstein in the 1990s – have argued, cogently in my view, that the unusual features of the skulls of some of the Kow Swamp people were due to them having been artificially deformed in infancy. One people, though with diverse customs, then as now.

In the late 1990s came some stunning news. Rainer Griin, using a method called Electron Spin Resonance, and Nigel Spooner, using Optically Stimulated Luminescence, concluded one of the Lake Mungo skeletons may have been buried more than 60,000 years ago. That’s a long, long time for a race to have occupied a continent. It has not met with universal acceptance: in particular Jim Bowler, an expert on the prehistory of the Mungo region, and another dating expert, Bert Roberts, have raised queries. But very ancient it certainly is.

And shortly after that came the news that Greg Adcock had extracted mitochondria! DNA from the same Mungo skeleton and from some of the Kow Swamp remains. The Kow Swamp DNA is well within the modern Aboriginal range; that would seem to take care of any last possibilities of them being Homo erectus . But the Mungo DNA, it was claimed, was indeed outside the modern range, but I and others have pointed to many problems with this interpretation, which are too complex to go into here. There never was any suggestion, based on its anatomy, that the skeleton was anything but Australoid, and the DNA findings change nothing. To repeat: Aboriginal people certainly knew of, had contact with, and were even visited by outsiders, but there is no evidence, based on either fossils or supposed remnant modern populations, that anyone but the ancestors of modern Aboriginal people were ever in occupation of the Australian continent.

All this should not matter in the grand scheme of things, should it? But people have a way of pressing science into service for their own ends. It’s human nature, I suppose. But if they are going to do so, they should at least get their science right. Some may want to appeal to an imaginary precursor race, Negritos or whoever, wiped out by today’s Aboriginal people but, as any Ockham’s Razor listener will appreciate, scientific knowledge progresses, and understandings move on as a result.


Colin Groves is Professor of Biological Anthropology at the Australian National University.

In the opening paragraph of this essay, Colin Groves refers to an episode of Ockham’s Razor broadcast in April 2002, in which freelance journalist and author David Tribe replied to an Ockham’s Razor talk by Cassi Plate on past and present racism in Australia, which was broadcast in March 2002.

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