Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The People with Creativity

Early in the year I used Steven Mithen's After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000-5000 BC to teach the prehistory (I even extracted a passage on Çatal Höyük). Now I can read it slowly and savor it. Mithen writes well, using fictional techniques to imagine prehistoric life. He also explores the history of anthropology, describing how opinions of prehistoric peoples have changed since the 19th century as sites were discovered and technology used. Here is one example of how appreciation of Australian Aborigines grew (also, check this site on Australian Anthropology).

[The] earliest accounts of the native Australians are often little more than dismissive racist tracts. Anthropologists, however, soon began to appreciate the complexity of Aboriginal society. At least two hundred distinct languages were recorded; extensive trade networks were documented along which foodstuffs, axes, grinding slabs and ochre traveled; the mythological world of the Dreamtime, in which Ancestral Beings created the landscape and continued to intervene in human affairs, was partly revealed. What had appeared to be simple depictions of animals, people and signs were found to have complex meanings, often relating to the activities of Ancestral Beings

Initial assumptions of a hand-to-mouth, catch-as-catch-can existence were revised as the sophistication of Aboriginal hunting and gathering was realised. Aborigines were found to have a profound knowledge of plant distribution and animal behavior; they were able to adapt to ever-changing conditions, often adopting radically different lifestyles in wet and dry seasons according to the range of available resources. Although they were all hunter-gatherers, many managed their landscapes and food supply by the controlled burning of vegetation.

Recognising the complexity of Aboriginal society was the first of two shifts in European views about the native Australians. The second was to appreciate that these people were not a timeless relict of an original human society, a people without history. Their societies were as much a product of history as those of the European colonists. The start of their history - the date at which Australia was first colonised - has gradually shifted back in time, from an initial guess of 10,000 BC, to 35,000 BC during the 1980s, to almost 60,000 years ago today.
[Italics mine.]


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