Debunking: ‘Aborigines took this place from the pygmies’

31 Jan 2019

These theories are outdated and are not accepted as facts by almost anybody in the fields of anthropology, archeology or history.

Claire G. Coleman

When arguing for land rights, protesting against colonisation, marching on Invasion Day, or just trying to breathe freely in January it is not uncommon to read or hear the arguments “Aborigines took the continent from the pygmies” or “Aboriginals were not the first people in Australia”.

This is almost always stated without references, such as by Senator Leyohnjelm in 2015, and references are rarely provided even when requested.

If a reference is provided it is usually the same document, an article in Quadrant, by Keith Windschuttle and Tim Gillin, called “The extinction of the Australian Pygmies”.

This argument leads inevitably, unless it had started that way, to the statement that the English were merely the most recent arrivals of multiple overlapping invasions.

Therefore, these people argue, Aboriginal people are not deserving of land-rights because we invaded someone else; the people here before are the one’s deserving of land rights but they are all dead.

Spoiler alert: These theories are outdated and are not accepted as facts by almost anybody in the fields of anthropology, archeology or history.

This theory should not be necessary to debunk because, not only was there never any evidence to support it (and I will cover that below), but also because it’s a strawman argument.

It doesn’t matter whether or not there had only been one prehistoric migration into Australia, which there was, or three, which there wasn’t; there were people here when the Europeans arrive.

It doesn’t matter if we are descended from one people or three, we were still here when Europeans arrived.

However, there is no harm in being rigorous; no harm in making sure that even a strawman has no legs to stand on.

There are essentially two overlapping arguments used in an attempt to prove Aboriginal people were not the first people on the continent, the anthropological and the “art historical”, which is essentially art looked at with an unprofessional anthropological lens.

There is a racially motivated aspect and a lack of intellectual rigour to the anthropology in both those arguments.

This theory should not be necessary to debunk because there never any evidence to support it

In 2002, “historian” Keith Windschuttle – not yet the editor of right-wing magazine Quadrant – with collaborator Tim Gillin  (the only proof of Gillin’s existence I can find online is that article), wrote and published in that magazine an article called “The Extinction of the Australian Pygmies” [2002].

In essence the argument was: there were pygmies, ostensibly the first of three migrations into the continent, who had been here for 40,000 years and who were displaced eventually by the Aboriginal people.

According to Windschuttle and Gillin the “pygmies” were displaced thousands of years ago and survived long enough to be photographed in the 1930s.

Sometime between the time that anthropologists Birdsell and Tindale reported visiting the “pygmies”, in 1938, and 2002 when Windschuttle and Gillin wrote their piece the pygmies apparently became extinct.

In addition, according to the article in question all evidence of the existence of the “pygmies” disappeared sometime in the 1960s.

According to Windschuttle and Gillin, in an epic Occam’s razor failure, the historical evidence of the pygmies was consciously erased as part of a conspiracy to empower the land-rights movement.

Their argument was built from Birdsell’s trihybrid theory of Aboriginal arrival, essentially a theory that there were three migrations of people onto the Australian continent, each one eradicating the other, before white people came.

According to Shoshanna Grounds and Anne Ross “Constant Resurrection: The Trihybrid Model and the Politicisation of Australian Archaeology”, in the peer reviewed journal Australian Archeology [2010], ‘Most Australian archaeologists would say that Birdsell’s trihybrid model is defunct and no longer worth considering’.

Most Australian archaeologists would say that Birdsell’s trihybrid model is defunct and no longer worth considering

There was a rigorous debunking of Windschuttle and Gillin in Aboriginal History, Volume 29 [2005] by Michael Westaway and Peter Hiscock called “The Extinction of Rigour: A Comment on ‘The Extinction of the Australian Pygmies’ by Keith Windschuttle and Tim Gillin”. Westaway and Hiscock conclude ‘Windschuttle and Gillin have engaged in a fanciful and ultimately superficial discussion of Australia’s past’.

Windschuttle and Gillin resorted to a “bizarre conspiracy theory” instead of intellectual rigour.

Any attempts to revive Birdsell’s trihybrid theory are, according to Grounds and Ross, lacking in academic support and politically motivated.

Those who do not rely on the works of Windschuttle and Gillan site the evidence of the “Bradshaw figures”; a form of figurative art found in caves and rock shelters in the north Kimberly, Western Australia.

Over the decades various racially motivated anthropologists and self-taught “experts” have stated that Aboriginal people could not have or did not paint these figures, stating instead they were painted by people from Africa.

Anyone who has ever been to the Kimberly, who has visited communities such as in Mowanjum, would discover that those paintings have custodians; cultures who identify the paintings as theirs.

They continue to produce art containing these figures today. They are a living part of culture.

The traditional owners of the rocks where the figures are found call them Gwion Gwion (there is some variation over the three languages spoken by the cultures that create those paintings).

They are not dissimilar to the Gwinkan figures in Cape York, there is a continuity of styles from them via Mimi figures in Arnhem land to the Gwion Gwion.  There is no evidence that the art is of an exotic, non-Aboriginal, origin.

Any notion that the Gwion Gwion figures are by people other than those who were living there when Europeans arrived has been thoroughly binned.

There is no reason to believe anything other than that colonial racism and ideas about the sophistication of Aboriginal people led people to assume that the local people were not advanced enough to paint those figures.

To summarise, all theories of earlier people being displaced by the Aboriginal people are reliant on the trihybrid theory which has been thoroughly and aggressively debunked.

It seems impossible that Windschuttle and Gillin could have been unaware of it.  And yet in his article he made no mentions of the debunking of the model he was using, not even to call it out as incorrect.

Modern anthropology agrees that there was one arrival on Australia sometime more than 45,000 years ago.  Any search of scientific research makes that unambiguous.

Anybody still attempting to promote the ‘trihybrid” theory of human arrivals on this continent are either extraordinarily ignorant or intentionally misleading.  There is no real evidence for anything they are saying.

Some resources are provided below to make my short story longer.

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