Elephants In Our Room - Human Culture


Multiculturalism is said to be a failure in the majority of “developed” countries. But why is that? And what exactly is multiculturalism anyway? What, indeed, is culture? It is defined as “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society”. In fact, culture is the full range of learned human behaviour patterns.
Culture is a powerful human tool for survival, but it is a fragile phenomenon.  It is constantly changing and easily lost because it exists only in our minds. Our written languages, governments, buildings, and other man-made things are merely the products of culture. They are not culture in themselves.  For this reason, archaeologists cannot dig up culture directly in their excavations.  The broken pots and other artefacts of ancient people that they uncover are only material remains that reflect cultural patterns--they are things that were made and used through cultural knowledge and skills.

While human societies and cultures are not the same thing, they are inextricably connected because culture is created and transmitted to others in a society. Cultures are not the product of lone individuals.  They are the continuously evolving products of people interacting with each other.  Cultural patterns such as language and politics make no sense except in terms of the interaction of people. If you were the only human on earth, there would be no need for language or government.

This all brings me to how historians and archaeologists perceive culture. Unfortunately, it is ranked, judged upon its so-called development in comparison to what they deem less sophisticated societies. The top 10 cultures, as ranked by historians, relate to the power of their “empires” and the level of engineering expertise in those societies in the areas of construction, innovation and weaponry, such as the Roman Empire, the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, the Aztecs, etc. Presumably the Australian Aboriginal culture would rank near the bottom of the list. But I would like to challenge that.

Recently we had a Federal politician say that Australia had only been developed since European settlement. And Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, wants to manipulate curriculums that virtually ignore the story of Australia prior to 1788, to eradicate the Aboriginal experience. Archaeological studies currently show that Aboriginal people have been in Australia at least 60,000 years. DNA science has confirmed that Aboriginals left Africa 75,000 years ago and may be the oldest continuous culture on the planet.

Now, as I have already said, the relevance of cultures is ranked by us according to the things they were able to create. That is, “things” in the material sense. There is no consideration given to how well these cultures worked as functional societies, of their understanding of creating a peaceful, cohesive society that lived as one with Mother Nature.

The Australian Abororiginal philosophy of life was simplicity. Australian Aborigines are renowned for their bush survival skills. One such skill is the ability to make fire simply from rubbing two sticks of wood together. This is an ancient skill which modern man has lost. Aboriginal housing mostly consisted of simple shelters made from a framework of straight branches, then covered with leafy branches or sheets of bark. Stone housing is only known from two regions of Australia, on High Cliffy Island off the Kimberley coast and in one district of Victoria. In these regions, stone circles about two metres across and 1.5 metres high were erected forming the shelter walls. Branches and vegetation were placed over these to form a roof.

Aborigines did not build large stone monuments, did not farm animals and did not cultivate the soil for crops. Because they did not form cities, their culture is not described as a "civilisation", yet it contains all the elements of a civilised world. The arts – great paintings, lengthy songs and dances with accompanying stories that continue for days like great operas, are all present. Law and order was strict and religion was of greatest importance. Traditional Australian Aborigines lived a nomadic life, following the seasons and the available food.
With very few simple tools, used with incredible skill, the Aboriginal learned to live in the harsh and inhospitable Australian outback. It's possible that the first Aborigines in Australia hunted the Australian megafauna - giant kangaroos, giant wombat etc. to extinction. Maybe that was when Aborigines learned to take care of natural resources and move to new hunting grounds before the old ones are depleted beyond repair.
When at rest, Aborigines lived in open camps, caves or simple structures made from bark, leaves or other vegetation. Their technology was both simple and sophisticated. Above all, it was appropriate for their way of life - ideally matched to the constraints of nomadic life. The modern notion of possessions is alien to traditional Aboriginal culture. Material things were shared within groups. The idea that an individual could 'own' land was foreign to Aboriginal thinking.
One might think about how we define "advanced" and "primitive" when one considers that our modern cultures are only several hundreds to thousands of years old, while Aboriginal culture was 60,000 years old when Europeans stumbled upon it. One of the reasons Aboriginal cultures have survived for so long is their ability to adapt and change over time. It was this affinity with their surroundings that goes a long way to explaining how Aboriginal people survived for so many millennia. Some of the important issues facing our world today and in the future, such as maintaining social cohesion, avoiding major wars, dealing with overpopulation, preventing the degradation and destruction of our environment, and the use of non-renewable resources, had been overcome by Aborigines and their ancient culture as they filled every part of the Australian continent. In these areas, perhaps we should regard Western culture as "developing" and Aboriginal culture as "advanced".
Australia is the world's largest island and its smallest continent. It is the driest land mass overall, with much of the centre being desert, yet has rainforests along its coasts, and the north is tropical, with bountiful rivers and vegetation. Aborigines occupied all of Australia, adapting incredibly to the harshness of the desert interior by digging small wells and memorising their locations, along with other natural water holes and soaks, through folklore and ritual. In these desert areas, where no significant trees could be found, they learned to make their long, straight spears by digging out straight roots hidden deep in the ground, reaching out from low desert shrubs.
While European influence commenced in 1788 in the Sydney region of south east Australia, it did not reach central Australia until the 1880s. Many Aboriginal groups in these remoter areas were virtually unchanged by European influence until the 1940's and the last traditional nomadic families moved from the desert regions to settlements in the 1960's.
Aboriginal culture, including many beliefs and customs, varied widely across the areas of Australia. For example The Aborigines of Tasmania, the island state south of the mainland, were separated from the mainland by rising sea levels 11,000 years ago and may have had no further contact with the mainland, or anyone else, until European arrival. The sea level continued to rise and reached its present level about 6,000 years ago. These were truly the most isolated people in the world, missing out on mankind's later inventions such as the spearthrower and innovations in stone technology. But the cultural connection was based upon the spirituality and the heritage, the sense of belonging to the land, some arts and crafts, and the importance of family and ancestry, which continue as the modern essentials of Aboriginal culture.
If we are to judge the quality of a culture as being reflected in its level of social cohesion, such as crime rates and levels of equality, then the Aboriginal culture must be ranked an absolute success. Aboriginal tribal law is often seen as harsh and brutal, usually defined by sentencing circles, but it ensured order and discipline. Payback is the most known form of customary law, and it worked. Today Aboriginals are over-represented in prisons across Australia, but prior to European settlement the majority of tribes lived a peaceful existence, both within their own tribes and those neighbouring.
Today we have cultures that exclude women. And the general perception is that Aboriginal women were likewise treated as slaves whose sole purpose was to bear children and serve their male masters. But the work of anthropologists such as Leacock and Karen Sacks challenged the acceptance of much of the early interpretations of societies before European colonisation. They argue that early reports of these societies have to be interpreted with the prejudices which Europeans took with them kept very much in mind. But these studies have revealed that sexism was not near as predominant in this indigenous culture as it was, at the time, in European society.

And inequality was virtually unknown in Aboriginal culture. Because they did not embrace any concept relating to possession and wealth, tribal sharing of all resources was considered natural. Any food, for example, that was superfluous to personal or family requirements, was freely given to neighbours who were lacking.

If you are the sort of person who would rather dine at a fine restaurant or gaze at a multistorey building than walk through a rainforest, you will probably not comprehend my perspective. But I assure you, there is nothing of greater importance in a culture than a functional society. And if you think we are more “advanced” today than our indigenous people of past centuries, I ask you to think again. It’s just possible that we lost much more than we gained.

The fact is that each and every culture needs to be respected, but not necessarily embraced. Many current cultural traditions should be rightfully condemned. They are the ones that have failed to mature and adapt to modern thinking.

Criticism of multiculturalism appears to be in fashion lately with some European leaders. In fact, in the recent past the heads of the three biggest European economies – Germany, France and the United Kingdom - have all come out against multiculturalism. And the current Australian conservative government are clearly not a fan of what it represents. And that is simply an emotional reaction to a changing world. Increasingly, we are promoting individualism and the notion that our “way of life” is under threat from alternate cultures that see the world differently. One day it will finally occur to people in Western countries that the need to protect our culture is futile, ignorant and selfish. To survive as a species we need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our human compatriots, and to reject the notion of “them and us”. Again, I say, it’s simply “us”.

Geoff Mooney