Rock Art (Siggy Nowak, Pixabay)

Aboriginal people were not the first Australian inhabitants?

This article first appeared under the title of “Playing the man: diffusionism, racism and the dreaded Bradshaws” in The Skeptic, Vol.22, No.2, pp.20-22.

Reproduced with permission

Pseudoscience and Political Correctness in Paleoanthropology

It is alarmingly common for the proponents of ‘isolationist’ and ‘diffusionist’ accounts of ancient societies to accuse each other of being motivated and influenced by what we modernists would regard as irrelevant prejudices.

Especially in the last decade or so, ‘isolationists’ have often levelled accusations of racism at diffusionists (many of whom are nowadays to be found on the fringe). The diffusionist belief that long and influential intercontinental voyages were frequent – and that in consequence some ancient societies can surprisingly be identified as offshoots or associates of others – is supposed to involve the overt or covert assumption that only certain ethnic groups, notably Europeans, are capable of real innovation. On this view, many groups could not have made the observed or inferred innovations without a push or jolt from outsiders with more highly developed skills and knowledge.

In turn, diffusionists have always accused isolationists (whose ideas are more salient in the modern scholarly mainstream) of dogmatic adherence to a comfortable view of the ancient world which involves little complicating interaction between areas remote from each other on the globe but achieves this only by seriously understating the navigational and organizational capacities of (some) early civilisations. Such accusations were often made even when extreme diffusionism was temporarily part of the mainstream, as in the case of the early-C20 ‘Manchester School’ in archaeology.

A familiar theme among diffusionists is that arrogant mainstream isolationists ignore vast amounts of evidence which demonstrates that the links which their own side posits are real. But, as many readers will be aware, even the linguistic evidence for such links, which is often the most specific and concrete, is typically much weaker than amateurs untrained in the discipline imagine. The number of cases where shared genetic origin or heavy borrowing between apparently unconnected languages – and hence the reality of early, influential cultural links – can really be demonstrated is a very small proportion indeed of the overall total of such cases. And much the same applies to the bulk of the non-linguistic evidence.

The Bradshaw Paintings – ‘proof’ of a pre-Australian Aboriginal culture?

Where political issues arise, the name-calling directed at those with unpopular views can become especially bitter. One recent case where this has occurred involves the ‘Bradshaw’ paintings of the Kimberley in Western Australia. These paintings are in a style not otherwise encountered in Australia; their dates have been heavily debated but may be very early; and some Aboriginal people report local myths suggesting that the paintings are not regarded as Aboriginal work (or even as human in origin). In the mid-90s, Walsh, following up some earlier work, argued that they represent the work of a pre-Aboriginal group who were in the area as long ago as 75,000 BP. He went on to speculate as to where such a group might have originated, likening the art itself to certain African forms but more seriously suggesting that a negrito group such as those found on some Indian Ocean islands might have been involved (arriving via Indonesia). Such a group would later have been assimilated into the Aboriginal population but would originally have been genetically distinct; and Walsh held that there was some evidence (skeletal, mythological, etc) pointing in this direction.

Any such suggestion that Aboriginal people were not alone in being the first inhabitants of Australia is obviously a political hot potato of major proportions!

Racism and Bias

Such views have also been adopted by various fringe thinkers, some of whom appear to have anti-Aboriginal axes to grind (as noted, prejudice works both ways!). It also has to be said that some of those who agree with Walsh do not help their own case by accusing other scholars of bias in a manner rather reminiscent of fringe attacks on the ‘blinkered’ mainstream. And even as presented by Walsh this idea has not found favour, partly for the legitimate rational reasons that (a) there is no archaeological evidence of such a pre-Aboriginal culture in the area and (b) even the very oldest human remains found in Australia are all clearly Australoid. In attacking Walsh, Rosenfeld made the former of these very points. But she also prominently identified Walsh’s position as ‘informed by racist perceptions of what Aboriginal people are capable of’. Even if Walsh is deemed clearly mistaken in his views, this particular comment seems to involve something of an extrapolation in respect of his meaning. To describe a style as markedly different and indeed as unexpectedly ‘exquisite’ is not to damn the producers of work in other styles as inherently inferior. In context, Rosenfeld’s statement serves mainly to blacken Walsh and undermine his credibility. Now, if the latter is indeed low, this can be shown without resort to such accusations of racism. However, such loose reading of the words of opposing scholars is in fact almost routine in work of this kind, particularly where ‘political correctness’ is a factor.

So too is loose argumentation, presented as clearly sound. McNiven and Russell, who also criticise Walsh, provide a very useful summary of many earlier interpretations of Aboriginal and other non-Eurasian artefacts, many of which were indeed racist after the manner of their time (this includes the Manchester School’s comments on Australian material). On the other hand, when they turn to Walsh’s much more recent academic work, their most important criticism involves his use of a ‘19th-century diffusionist framework’, which they seem to identify – without evidence – as his main reason for coming to his views. Framework is a key word in this kind of writing; it is a marker of the incursion into traditionally empirical domains of a degree of postmodernism (not to say self-confounding relativism) considerably in excess of the useful message that one must always be alert to group prejudices when engaged in theoretical and descriptive work in such domains. The implication is that only a commentator who had become thoroughly biased through adopting an ideological stance of this kind could take this view. (What of their own biases, then?!)

McNiven and Russell’s worries about the actual evidence for Walsh’s ideas (which are genuinely serious, if perhaps not altogether decisive) come later. Later still they quote Walsh as predicting that many would prefer his theory not to become widely known even if it were correct, because it would damage the ‘Aboriginal industry’ involving land claims, etc. They clearly object to this comment; but, if Walsh were shown to be right, this prediction would appear likely to be accurate. In New Zealand, where the ‘indigenous’ population is of no great antiquity, attempts have even been made to invent a more remote past so as to strengthen the cases of some Maori activists (see my earlier reports). And surely it would be reasonable to re-assess any public program to the extent that it did come to appear to be based on false historical claims.

McNiven and Russell go on to label Walsh’s ideas ‘colonialist’; and they claim that it is simply illegitimate even to suggest that relatively abrupt changes in the material culture might involve diffusion from neighbouring areas unless similar material, suitably dated, is available from those neighbouring areas – which, as noted, is currently not the case. They are right in implying that a diffusionist interpretation of the Bradshaws would be on very much firmer ground if this were otherwise. But they do not seem even to countenance such a possibility, preferring to impugn the motives – and thus the scholarship – of those who offer such suggestions, while not overtly questioning their own. Their argumentation appears at best no sounder than Walsh’s. Some diffusionists claim that not only the words but also the actions of their opponents are often excessive. For instance, it is alleged that Brazilian officials and thinkers are determined to conceal any evidence of European contact before 1500, such as some possibly Roman artefacts; and that the New Zealand authorities take a similar line on putatively pre-Maori remains. However, these conspiracy stories often prove to be exaggerated or to involve misinterpretation.

Isolationism vs. Diffusionism

Of course, it is in fact quite clear that some aspects of each culture develop in isolation, while other aspects may diffuse from others. In other words, processes of both kinds are always possible; neither extreme position is likely to tell the whole story. The often dogmatic focus on polarised interpretations has diverted the attention of some writers from appreciation of the mixed patterns of origin which often prevail. This is not to deny that even more moderate versions of diffusionism may be dangerously wrong if too readily adopted. Human beings are clever inventors, and similar good ideas can arise independently. Shared human experiences and psychological patterns are also quite capable of accounting for many superficial similarities between cultures.

Indeed, the onus is clearly upon those who proclaim (rather than suggest) diffusion as an explanation of similarities to justify their positions in stronger terms than they usually offer. This is especially where a link appears otherwise unlikely on historical and/or geographical grounds, as in the alleged cases of ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians in New Zealand or of the Dark-Age Welsh in the higher reaches of the Mississippi. Ockham’s Razor will normally favour a non-diffusionist explanation.

Now some (by no means all) diffusionists are indeed inclined towards racism, or at least towards nationalism and assumptions about the inherent cultural superiority of certain groups. (There is, of course, nothing controversial about the idea that as a matter of contingent fact some groups developed certain ideas and techniques earlier than other groups and were then in a position to influence these other groups if they came into contact with them; this is obviously true and sheds no discredit on the influenced groups, who may have had other pre-occupations.) And some mainstream ‘isolationists’ are indeed unwilling to consider prima facie evidence (not implausible) for unrecognised links between early cultures. However, many thinkers surely adopt positions of either kind simply because these positions reflect how they interpret the evidence, in the process (hopefully) being as objective as they can. Of course, some of these thinkers are bound to be wrong if others are right; some may even be stupidly wrong, or at any rate may be too ignorant to develop worthwhile positions on the matters involved (and should not have become involved until they had learned more). But being wrong or ignorant is not the same thing at all as being prejudiced.

Prejudice or Perspective?

I suggest that all thinkers should pay less attention to the possible prejudices which may have led others to views on such matters which differ radically from their own. (They might all do well, however, to assess their own thought from this perspective; such self-examination, as Aristotle famously noted, is a large part of being human!) For modernists who still believe in the possibility of a useful degree of objectivity and in rationality more generally, what really matters is the strength of the evidence and argumentation for and against each theory. Even if our opponent does believe something because she is a racist (etc), her belief may still be correct. And if she is wrong, the best way to show that will be to advance the relevant evidence and argumentation, not to describe her (even accurately) as a racist. Her racism and the equivalent prejudices of others are rather more relevant to the history of the debate (where they are indeed important) than to the resolution of current disagreements.

Newbrook, Mark. 2002.

Dr Mark Newbrook is a skeptic, linguist and football hooligan. He managed to combine two of these interests to help pioneer the field of Skeptical Linguistics.

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