Excavation leader Chris Clarkson stands in front of the 2015 excavation area with local Djurrubu Aboriginal Rangers Vernon Hardy, Mitchum Nango, Jacob Baird, and Claude Hardy.

Steve Bunbadgee Hodder Watt: Our past provides a pathway to our future

Discoveries at this rock shelter on a lease surrounded by Kakadu National Park has pushed human habitation in the area back to 65 000 years. Traditional owners May Nango and Mark Djanjomerr. Pic Glenn Campbell

Discoveries at this rock shelter in Kakadu National Park has pushed human habitation in the area back to 65000 years.
Photo: Glenn Campbell.

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Steve Bunbadgee Hodder Watt is a Lardil man with English heritage who lived in central Australia for 30 years and has worked in Aboriginal media and theatre.

Kakadu National Park has always been the tropical rival to Uluru-Kata Tjuta both in terms of it’s natural majesty and through the long history of Aboriginal culture that both places share. Recently it was announced in Kakudu that the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation and a team of Australian archaeologists has dated a site at Madjedbebe, on the traditional lands of the Mirarr clan, at 65,000 years old, with further testing potentially indicating even earlier occupation.

The site of research has been at the centre of archaeological debate for decades over claims, with the archaeological community divided between those arguing for first occupation of Australia less than 50,000 years ago and those arguing for colonisation as early as 60,000 years ago. Excavations in 2012 and 2015 and subsequent detailed research have put this debate to rest, demonstrating First Nations’ occupation from 65,000 years ago, with substantial evidence of early Aboriginal culture at the site.

Social media lit up with ‘excitement’ about the ramifications that the findings could have, not only on the ever-growing back-dating of human occupation in Australia, but also because of how that flows on for the theory of pan-continental human migration.

While the findings reflect broader acceptance of Indigenous people’s groundings on their respective homelands, it’s hard to ignore that it does little to change the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to be pushed through the cycles of neo-colonisation and seemingly perpetual oppression.

May Nango and Mark Djanjomerr inspect one of the artefacts uncovered at the Madjedbebe site.Photo: Glenn Campbell.

May Nango and Mark Djanjomerr inspect one of the artefacts uncovered at the Madjedbebe site.Photo: Glenn Campbell.

The beacon on the distant hill is future policy direction that emulates the grassroots-led autonomy exemplified through the landmark agreement between the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation and the archaeologists to achieve the two related digs at Madjedbebe.

Excavation team leader, Associate Professor Chris Clarkson from the University of Queensland said the partnership between the Mirrar traditional owners and researchers sets a new standard for engaging with Aboriginal people: “This agreement is one of the strongest of its kind and gives Aboriginal people full power to say yes or no to everything we are doing.

“Also full ownership of all the artefacts that will be returned to community at the end. It’s been an empowering agreement for Aboriginal people and should set an important precedent in this country and I hope everyone follows a similar agreement in the future.

“It’s a pretty checkered past and we’ve come a long way and I hope this will take us even further.”

Less than twenty years ago, thousands of activists campaigned on Mirrar lands against an expansion of uranium mining operations and despite Energy Resources Australia (ERA) coming on board as the current lease-holders for the Jabiluka site and granting access to the site, the potential risks that mining in that area could have had on the ability for the traditional owners to protect culture and country aren’t lost on those working with the Mirrar people. 

Mirrar Senior Traditional Owner Yvonne Margarula leads a protest against the Jabiluka mine in Kakadu National Park, 1998. Photo: © David Hancock 1998

Mirrar Senior Traditional Owner Yvonne Margarula leads a protest against the Jabiluka mine in Kakadu National Park, 1998. Photo: © David Hancock 1998

“This study confirms the sophistication of the Australian Aboriginal toolkit and underscores the universal importance of the Jabiluka area. These findings reinforce the need for the highest level of conservation and protection for this site,” said Justin O’Brien, Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation CEO.

Professor Clarkson added that it’s all part of the struggle to protect the sites, given also the threat of mining: “There’s so many sites in the Kakadu region in general and it doesn’t take much to disturb them so they need to be protected. We’re pretty sure there will hundreds or thousands of sites in the area that’ll be that old or have other rich remains in them as well so these landscapes are really important on a world stage and they have to be protected at the highest level.”

Professor Clarkson also disputes the argument that Indigenous people were primitive because they didn’t invent the wheel.

“65,000 years ago was a very remote period, the neolithic didn’t start up until 10,000 years ago so in terms of what people were doing (here) at that time, it’s just as complex as anywhere,” he said.

“They’re mixing ochre palettes for painting, creating complex composite stone tools that are hatcheted on with glue and resins. They’re grinding up seeds, which also requires investment in technology to gather and process the seeds. A lot of these things we don’t normally think of coming until much later, like edge-ground axes. You don’t find those until the neolithic in most parts of the world, so that says a lot of innovations took place here long before you see them elsewhere. It shows that Aboriginal people here were just as dynamic as anyone anywhere on Earth at that time.

“The axes are fantastic because they’re the oldest axes in the world by some 20,000 years or more. Then we’ve got these discoidal cores which are a really interesting artefact.The pattern of how they’ve been chipped resemble what is seen in Africa, Asia and India. It’s the first evidence in Australia of this kind for a technological link to the migration theory.”

Mirrar custodian May Nango hints that the cultural legacy is a continuum for them.

“This country belongs to Mirrar so we will stay here forever and we will be buried here,” she said.

“We try to pass it on to the young people so they can remember that the old people gave us this story and when they grow up they can pass it to their young kids.”

Listening to May Nango’s interview at the excavation site, it was curious to note that there seemed to be much more excitement displayed by participants on social and traditional media than there was from the Mirrar themselves, the very people’s who are linked directly to Madjedbebe.

Professor Larissa Behrendt, a Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman and Director of Research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology in Sydney, suspects it is because it’s not often really news to us mob.

“We often see these stories where western scientists will make ‘discoveries’ about the longevity of Aboriginal culture, being able to say how old is our science and art but this is never surprising to us because we know that history is in our own mythologies and our own oral stories so it doesn’t change the contemporary issues that we’re looking at,” she said.

“It often strengthens the deepness of our connection to our country and the importance of our cultural sites and our history and the importance of us retaining control over that. We shouldn’t have to rely on westerners, through their own science and technology ‘discovering’ what we already know.” 

Also announced this week was news that ERA’s lease on the Ranger Uranium Mine expires in 2021, with rehabilitation of the mine to be completed by 2026. This could see a monumental shift in industry-focus towards tourism for the area.

As more attention now focuses on proving how ‘dynamic’, ‘innovative’ and ‘sophisticated’’ Aboriginal people were in prehistory, beating every other peoples for having the best ‘Swiss army knife’ of the time (now 20,000 years earlier than anyone else) it has little impact on the continuing decline in the social determinants of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the current era.

For all the accolades to prove who came from where, when and how, statistics are the most damning evidence that it’s the occupation of 200 or so years that has had the most impact on the continuity of Australia’s First Nations.

We continue to see family chained to hospital beds and dying in custody, Aboriginal youth are still systemically subjugated, abused and even killed by systems that discount our self-determination and autonomy so odds are that if more agreements that empower our peoples aren’t guaranteed then there won’t be much of a future for us to be proud of our 65,000-80,000 year history.

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