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'. 


dearieme said...

Now if you want to really appreciate "indigenous peoples" ignore all the Aussie flummery about Abos, and contemplate the Polynesian navigators who settled the Pacific. Hats off to them, I say. What a feat.

Karl said...

I take it you would not recommend reading Chatwin's books. How about Laurens van der Post?

As you noted last week, having books recommended is a dubious blessing, given the sad disproportion between the number of books and the span of this mortal life. But I for one am happy to be told of books I needn't bother with.

So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

Wm Jas said...

I agree, dearieme. The navigators who settled all those islands from Easter Island to Madagascar were Taiwan aborigines. No one in Taiwan today knows anything about it. Their idea of appreciating their "indigenous peoples" is to make an epic film honoring an aboriginal chief for perpetrating a mass murder at a Japanese elementary school. Really. This crime is portrayed as if it were something noble and heroic, while the aborigines' actual heroic achievements are ignored.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Karl - I have only dipped into LvdP's books but I must say he struck me as untrustworthy, a would-be guru type (he was, I understand, a sort of guru for Prince Charles - which does not recommend him to me).

Ironmistress said...

Being a descendant of the Norsemen - who tracked the whole Northern Atlantic in the Early Middle Ages and invented rudimentary but functional stellar navigation for crossing high seas - I cannot but admire the Polynesians and their navigation skills.

We Scandinavians have kept the old skills alive for all these centuries. Even today I have a piece of Iceland spar at my yacht - as a backup for all backup systems, should I run out of electricity and GPS go out of function.

Likewise, the Polynesians have kept theirs alive, and they are based on the same principles: movements of stars, suns, oceanic currents, formation of clouds and birds - all kinds of natural phenomena.