It is common to refer to the Aboriginal presence on the Australian continent as the ‘oldest civilization’ on Earth. This is well-meaning, but an unnecessary exaggeration. The word ‘civilization’ comes from the word ‘civil’, or ‘civic’, meaning ‘city’.
Relations between Aborigines and Anglo Celts have been tumultuous, to say the least. Apart from moments of harmony and friendship, it has been largely marked by injustice, including genocide. In my lifetime I have seen a gradual process of reconciliation that has brought to light, after a century of silence, the frontier wars and massacres of indigenous people by the British and their fellow invaders. Historically, Anglo Celtic racial supremacy assumed Aborigines hadn’t advanced to a state of civic life for genetic reasons. This legacy and the ongoing process of reconciliation explains the current exaggeration. However, we now have more information about the evolution of our species that sheds light on the direction indigenous knowledge and practice took.
As prejudice gradually dissolves, there is more awareness of how advanced indigenous stewardship of the continent was. Over tens of thousands of years of coexistence with the natural environment, they developed a highly sophisticated understanding of it and how to live in it harmoniously. They had also gradually altered it to the extent their technology (principally fire) allow it, to suit their needs. For example, valleys and hilltops were cleared to accommodate their game (kangaroos, etc.) and provide views. In 1788, the British saw what seemed to them to resembled — in parts — a beautiful English pastoral estate (Gammage, B., 2011).
However, Aborigines didn’t build cities.
During the last of those tens of thousands of years, in other parts of the world, hunter gathers found places where it was relatively easy to domesticate plants and animals. The stores of food they produced led to the stratification of their societies which enabled them to build structures to venerate their gods. They built dwellings to protect them from the elements so they could specialize and develop crafts and services. Their grains fed their armies.
Those places were unlike anywhere in Australia. They were on fertile plains at crossroads of human movements in temperate climates. Mesopotamia, the Nile and Indus valleys have these characteristics in common.
Australia, by comparison, has few fertile regions. It is far flung and on the edge of Earth’s great land masses. It’s fertile plains are furthest from the first human landing sites. Additionally, those sites were inundated when Sahul — the super continent of Australia and Papua New Guinea — was transformed by the rise of sea levels, further isolating the new inhabitants. Despite the 500 or so languages spoken across the continent in 1788, the diversity of cultures was relatively homogeneous compared to other parts of the world. There had been nothing like the opportunity to mix, fight and cross-pollinate ideas through trade with other races and cultures.
Whether Australia has the oldest continuous culture on Earth is debatable, too, but it’s a comparison that does not and should not diminish Aboriginal culture and it achievements. It is most definitely one of the oldest living cultures in the world. A treasured one and one that those of us who have become so disconnected from the natural environment, can learn much from.
Simon Cole, August 2022