Monday, 15 July 2013

Aborigine songlines


Lots of Western people know that Australian Aborigines navigate across the deserts by learning a song which contains a sequence of landmarks, and going from one landmark to another. The pathways are sometimes called Songlines, sometimes Dreaming tracks.

This fact is presented as if it were a remarkable and beautiful achievement, but there is less to it than meets the eye.

For a start, this is a terrible way of navigating - because the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Any mistake at any point will mean that the navigator becomes lost.

Secondly, the idea that this was a special attainment of Aborigines is very recent - specifically it comes from the mid-nineteen seventies. Lewis, D. 1976. 'Observations on route-finding and spatial orientation... (in) central Australia.' Oceania 46: 249-282. 

I have read some detailed book length accounts of Aborigine life from the 1800s which make no mention of this method - probably because it was regarded as of little interest. 

Yet, suddenly, in the 1970s - as political correctness began to gather strength - this trivially crude method of navigation was presented as a great achievement. The public relations process was completed by my near namesake - the BS-merchant and darling of the chattering classes Bruce Chatwin, in a grossly hyped book called The Songlines.

Chanting songs to remember stuff is done by children - it is not specific nor distinctive to Aborigines. 

The fuss and nonsense made about Songlines seems more like an example of gross Western condescension than an appreciation of 'indigenous peoples'.