Inside Story

Odyssey down under

A new kind of history is called for in the year of the Voice referendum. Here’s what it might look like.

Tom Griffiths 8 September 2023 3728 words

Sacred rubble from Gondwana: new growth at Uluru. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

In the beginning, on a vast tract of continental crust in the southern hemisphere of planet Earth, the Dreaming brought forth the landscape, rendering it alive and full of meaning. It animates the landscape still, its power stirred constantly by human song, journey and ceremony. Past and present coalesce in these ritual bursts of energy. Creatures become mountains which become spirits that course again through the sentient lands and waters. People visit Country, listen to it, and cry for it; they sing it into being, they pay attention to it. They crave its beneficence and that of their ancestors. Their very souls are conceived by Country; life’s first quickening is felt in particular places and they become anchored forever to that beloved earth.

The stars are our ancestors lighting up their campfires across the night sky. The universe exploded into being fourteen billion years ago and is still expanding. As it cooled and continued to inflate, an opposite force — gravity — organised matter into galaxies and stars. Everything was made of the elements forged by stars. Around billions of fiery suns, the interstellar dust and debris of supernovas coalesced as planets, some remaining gaseous, some becoming rigid rock. Earth, with its molten core, its mantle of magma and a dynamic crust, was born. The planet is alive.

In the shallow waters off the western coast of the continent metamorphosed by the Dreaming sit solid mementos of the beginning of life. They are living fossils, cushions of cells and silt called stromatolites. After life emerged in a fiery, toxic cauldron in an ocean trench, bacteria at the surface captured sunlight and used it to create biological energy in the form of sugar. They broke down carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, feeding off the carbon and releasing oxygen as waste. Photosynthesis, Earth’s marvellous magic, had begun. It was just a billion years after the planet was formed.

To later inhabitants, oxygen would seem the most precious waste in the firmament. But it was a dangerous experiment, for the oxygen-free atmosphere that had created the conditions for life was now gone. Stromatolites hunched in the western tides descended from the creatures that began to breathe a new atmosphere into being.

Two billion years ago, enough oxygen existed to turn the sky blue. The same oxygen turned the oceans red with rust. Thus life itself generated the planet’s first environmental crisis. This ancient rain of iron oxide is preserved today in the banded ores of the Hamersley Range. The universe was then already old, but Earth was young.

The planet was restless and violent, still seething with its newness. When separate lands fused, the earth moved for them. Australian landmasses shifted north and south as crusts cruised over iron-rich magma. Large complex cells fed off the growing oxygen resource and diversified rapidly. For almost 400 million years the whole planet became gripped by glaciation and scoured by ice, and most life was extinguished. The long reign of the ancient glaciers was written into rock.

As the ice withdrew, life bloomed again. Organisms of cooperative cells developed in the oceans and became the first animals. Six hundred million years ago, a supercontinent later known as Gondwana began to amass lands in the south, and their titanic fusion created a chain of mountains in central Australia. Uluru and Kata Tjuta, inspirited by the rainbow python, are sacred rubble from this momentous first creation of Gondwana.

Life ventured ashore, protected now from dangerous radiation by the strengthening shield of ozone gas around Earth. Plants and animals sustained each other, the essential oxygen circulating between them. Gondwana united with other continents, creating a single landmass called Pangaea. When the planet cooled again, surges of glacial ice scoured life from the land once more. But life persisted, and its reinventions included the seed and the egg, brilliant breakthroughs in reproduction. They were portable parcels of promise that created a world of cycads and dinosaurs.

Earth gradually changed its hue over eons. Rusted rock and grey stone became enlivened by green, joining the blue of the restless oceans. Chlorophyll conquered the continents. Pines, spruces, cypresses, cycads and ferns found their way up the tidal estuaries, across the plains and into the mountains, but the true green revolution awaited the emergence of flowering plants. These plants generated pollen and used animals as well as wind to deliver it. Insects especially were attracted to the perfumed, colourful flowers where they were dusted with pollen before they moved to another bloom. It was a botanical sexual frenzy abetted by animal couriers. The variety of plants exploded. Nutritious grasslands spread across the planet and energy-rich fruits and seeds proliferated. As this magic unfolded, Gondwana separated from Pangaea again and consolidated near the south pole, where it began to break up further.

The cosmic dust that had crystallised as Earth, dancing alone with its single moon and awash with its gradually slowing tides, seemed to have settled into a rhythm. The bombardment of meteors that marked its early life had eased. Giant reptiles ruled, small mammals skulked in the undergrowth, and flowers were beginning to wreak their revolution.

Then, sixty-six million years ago, the planet was violently assaulted. A huge rogue rock orbiting the Sun plunged into Earth. The whole planet shuddered, tidal waves, fires and volcanoes were unleashed, soot blackened the atmosphere, and three-quarters of life was extinguished. The largest animals, the dinosaurs, all died. But the disaster of the death star also created the opportunity for mammals to thrive. The comet forged the modern world.

Flat and geologically calm, the landmass that would become Australia was now host to few glaciers and volcanoes. But ice and fire were to shape it powerfully in other ways. About fifty million years ago, in the final rupture of Gondwana, Australia fractured from its cousin, Antarctica, and voyaged north over millions of years to subtropical latitudes and a drier climate. Fire ruled Australia while Antarctica was overwhelmed by ice. The planet’s two most arid lands became white and red deserts.

The newly birthed Australian plate rafted north into warmer climes at a time in planetary history when the earth grew cooler, thus moderating climatic change and nurturing great biodiversity. It was the continent’s defining journey. It began to dry, burn and leach nutrients, the ancient soils became degraded and impoverished, and the inland seas began to dry up. In the thrall of fire, the Gondwanan rainforest retreated to mountain refuges and the eucalypt spread. Gum trees came to dominate the wide brown land. The bush was born.

Three million years ago, when North and South America finally met and kissed, the relationship had consequences. Ocean currents changed and the Pleistocene epoch, marked by a succession of ice ages, kicked into life. Regular, dramatic swings in average global temperature quickened evolution’s engine. The constant tick and tock of ice and warmth sculpted new, innovative life forms.

In southern Africa, an intelligent primate of the forests ventured out onto the expanding grasslands and gazed at the horizon. This hominid was a creature of the ice ages, but her magic would be fire. One day her descendants walked north, and they kept on walking.

By the time they reached the southeastern edges of the Asian islands, these modern humans were experienced explorers. They gazed at a blue oceanic horizon and saw that there was no more land. But at night they observed the faint glow of fire on a distant continent. And by day they were beckoned by haze that might be smoke and dust. What they did next was astonishing.

The people embarked on an odyssey. They strengthened their rafts and voyaged over the horizon, beyond sight of land in any direction — and they kept on sailing. They were the most adventurous humans on Earth. They crossed one of the great planetary boundaries, a line few land-based animals traversed, one of the deep sutures of tectonic earth. This was over 60,000 years ago. The first Australians landed on a northern beach in exhaustion, wonder and relief. They had discovered a continent like no other.

The birds and animals they found, the very earth they trod, had never known a hominid. The other creatures were innocent of the new predator and unafraid. It was a bonanza. But the land was mysterious and forbidding and did not reveal its secrets easily. The people quickly moved west, east and south, leaving their signatures everywhere. They had to learn a radically new nature. Arid Australia was not consistently dry but unpredictably wet. The climate was erratic, rainfall was highly variable, and drought could grip the land for years. The soil was mostly poor in nutrients and there were few large rivers. But these conditions fostered biodiversity and a suite of unique animals and plants that were good at conserving energy and cooperating with one another.

The first people arrived with a firestick in their hands, but never before had they known it to exert such power. For this was the fire continent, as distinctive in its fire regimes as in its marsupials and mammal pollinators. Fire came to be at the heart of Australian civilisation. People cooked, cleansed, farmed, fought and celebrated with fire. The changes they wrought with hunting and fire affected the larger marsupials which, over thousands of years, became scarce. People kept vast landscapes open and freshly grassed through light, regular burning. By firing small patches they controlled large fires and encouraged an abundance of medium-sized mammals. As the eucalypt had remade Australia through fire, so did people.

They had arrived on those northern beaches as the latest ice age of the Pleistocene held the planet in its thrall. Polar ice was growing and the seas were lower, which had made the challenging crossing from Asia just possible. People could walk from New Guinea to Tasmania on dry land. This greater Australia, now known as Sahul, was the shape of the continent for most of the time humans have lived here. People quickly reached the far southwest of Western Australia and the southern coast of Tasmania. From the edge of the rainforest they observed icebergs from Antarctica, emissaries from old Gondwana.

For tens of thousands of years after people came to Australia, the seas continued to retreat and the new coastlines were quickly colonised. Every region of the continent became inhabited and beloved, its features and ecologies woven into story and law. Trade routes spanned the land. People elaborated their culture, history and science in art and dance, and buried their loved ones with ritual and ceremony in the earliest known human cremations. Multilingualism was the norm. Hundreds of distinct countries and languages were nurtured, and the land was mapped in song. This place was where everything happened, where time began.

As the ice age deepened, the only glaciers in Australia were in the highlands of Tasmania and on the peaks of the Alps. For much of the continent, the ice age was a dust age. Cold droughts settled on the land, confining people in the deserts to sheltered, watered refuges. Great swirls of moving sand dunes dominated the centre of the continent but the large rivers ran clear and campfires lit up around the lakes they formed. About 18,000 years ago, the grip of the cold began to weaken and gradually the seas began to rise. Saltwater invaded freshwater, beaches eroded, settlements retreated, sacred sites became sea country. The Bassian Plain was flooded and Tasmanians became islanders. Over thousands of years, Sahul turned into Australia.

The rising of the seas, the loss of coastal land, and the warming of average temperatures by up to 8°C transformed cultures, environments and economies throughout the continent. People whose ancestors had walked across the planet had survived a global ice age at home. In the face of extreme climatic hardship, they continued to curate their beloved country. They had experienced the end of the world and survived.

The warm interglacial period known as the Holocene, which began 13,000 years ago, ushered in a spring of creativity in Australia and across the planet. Human populations increased, forests expanded into the grasslands and new foods flourished. Australians observed the emergence of new agricultural practices in the Torres Strait islands and New Guinea but mostly chose not to adopt them. They continued to tune their hunting and harvesting skills to the distinctive ecologies of their own countries, enhancing their productivity by conserving whole ecosystems. A complex tapestry of spiritual belief and ceremonial ritual underpinned their economies. The sharing of food and resources was their primary ethos.

Strangers continued to visit Australia from across the seas, especially from Indonesia and Melanesia. Four thousand years ago, travellers from Asia brought the dingo to northern shores. During the past millennium, Macassans from Sulawesi made annual voyages in wooden praus to fish for sea cucumbers off Arnhem Land where they were generally welcomed by the locals. The Yolngu people of the north engaged in trade and ceremony with the visitors, learned their language, adopted some of their customs and had children with them. Some Australians travelled by prau to Sulawesi.

In recent centuries, other ships nosed around the western and northern coasts of the continent, carrying long-distance voyagers from Europe. One day, early in the European year of 1788, a fleet of tall ships — “each Ship like another Noah’s Ark” carefully stowed with seeds, animals and a ballast of convict settlers — entered a handsome harbour on the east coast of Australia and began to establish a camp. These strangers were wary, inquisitive and assertive, and they came to stay. They were here to establish a penal colony and to conduct an agrarian social experiment. They initiated one of the most self-conscious and carefully recorded colonisations in history on the shores of a land they found both beautiful and baffling.

They were from a small, green land on the other side of the world, descendants of the people who had ventured west rather than east as humans exited Africa. They colonised Europe and Britain thousands of years after the Australians had made their home in the southern continent. They lived in a simplified ecology scraped clean by the glaciers of the last ice age, and were unprepared for the rich subtlety of the south.

For 2000 years before their arrival in Australian waters, the Europeans had wondered if there might be a Great South Land to balance the continents of the north. By the start of the sixteenth century, they confirmed that the planet was a sphere and all its seas were one. They circled the globe in tall sailing ships and voyaged to the Pacific for trade, science and conquest. The British arrivals were part of the great colonialist expansion of European empires across the world. For them, success was measured through the personal accumulation of material things; Australians were the opposite.

On eastern Australian beaches from the late eighteenth century, there took place one of the greatest ecological and cultural encounters of all time. Peoples with immensely long and intimate histories of habitation encountered the furthest-flung representatives of the world’s first industrialising nation. The circle of migration out of Africa more than 80,000 years earlier finally closed.

The British did indeed find the Great South Land of their imagination seemingly waiting for them down under and they deemed it vacant and available. It was an upside-down world, the antipodes. They would redeem its oddity and emptiness. The invaders brought the Bible, Homer, Euclid, Shakespeare, Locke and the clock. They came with guns, germs and steel. With the plough they broke the land. They shivered at “the deserted aboriginal feel of untilled earth.” They dug the dirt and seized it. Sheep and cattle were the shock troops of empire; their hard hooves were let loose on fragile soils and they trampled them to dust. Australian nature seemed deficient and needed to be “improved.” Colonists believed that the Australians were mere nomads, did not use the earth properly, and therefore did not own it.

But the true nomads were the invaders and they burned with land hunger. War for possession of the continent began. It continued for more than a hundred years on a thousand frontiers. Waterholes — the precious jewels of the arid country — were transformed into places of death. It was the most violent and tragic happening ever to befall Australia. So many lives were sacrificed, generations of people were traumatised, and intimate knowledge of diverse countries was lost.

Australia entered world history as a mere footnote to empire; it became celebrated as a planned, peaceful and successful offshoot of imperial Britain. A strange silence — or white noise — settled on the history of the continent. Nothing else had happened here for tens of thousands of years. Descendants of the newcomers grew up under southern skies with stories of skylarks, village lanes and green hedgerows from the true, northern hemisphere. And they learned that their country had a short triumphant history that began with “a blank space on the map” and culminated in the writing of “a new name on the map” — Anzac. So the apotheosis of the new nation happened on a distant Mediterranean shore. The cult of overseas war supplanted recognition of the unending war at home, and the heroic defence of country by the first Australians was repressed. They were disdained as peoples without agriculture, literacy, cities, religion or government, and were allowed neither a history nor a future.

The British and their descendants felt pride in their new southern land and pitied its doomed, original inhabitants. Colonists saw themselves as pioneers who pushed the frontier of white civilisation into the last continent to be settled, who connected Australia to a global community and economy. They were gratified that their White Australia, girt by sea, a new nation under southern skies, was a trailblazer of democratic rights: representative government, votes for working men, votes for women. But the first Australians lay firmly outside the embrace of democracy. They continued to be removed from country onto missions and reserves; they did not even have a rightful place in their own land, and every aspect of their lives was surveyed.

The invaders lived in fear of invasion. Had they used the soil well enough, had they earnt their inheritance? Would strangers in ships, boats, threaten again? Had they reckoned with their own actions in the land they had seized? There was a whispering in their hearts.

New peoples arrived down under from Europe, the Americas and Asia, and the British Australians lost their ascendancy. Australia became the home again of many cultures, vibrantly so, and a linguistic diversity not seen on the continent since the eighteenth century flourished. Many languages of the first peoples persisted and were renewed. The classical culture of the continent’s discoverers endured; their Dreamings, it was suggested, were the Iliad and Odyssey of Australia. A bold mix of new stories grew in the land.

The invaders of old Australia did not foresee that the people they had dispossessed would make the nation anew. The society they created together was suffused with grief and wonder. The original owners were recognised as full citizens and began to win their country back through parliament and the courts. They believed their ancient sovereignty could shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.

But now the planet was again shuddering under an assault. The meteor this time was the combined mass of humans and their impact upon air, oceans, forests, rivers, all living things. It was another extinction event, another shockwave destined to be preserved in the geology of Earth. The fossilised forests of the dinosaurs, dug up and burnt worldwide since Australia was invaded, had fuelled a human population explosion and a great acceleration of exploitation. Rockets on plumes of flame delivered pictures of spaceship Earth, floating alone, finite and vulnerable in the deep space of the expanding universe. Ice cores drilled from diminishing polar ice revealed, like sacred scrolls, the heartbeat of the planet, now awry. The unleashing of carbon, itself so damaging, enabled a planetary consciousness and an understanding of deep time that illuminated the course of redemption.

The Australian story, in parallel with other colonial cataclysms, was a forerunner of the planetary crisis. Indigenous management was overwhelmed, forests cleared, wildlife annihilated, waters polluted and abused, the climate unhinged. Across the globe, imperial peoples used land and its creatures as commodities, as if Earth were inert. They forgot that the planet is alive.

The continent of fire led the world into the new age of fire. But it also carried wisdom and experience from beyond the last ice age.

Humans, as creatures of the ice, were embarked on another odyssey. It would take them over the horizon, to an Earth they have never before known. •

References: The stars are our ancestors: B.T. Swimme and M.E. Tucker, Journey of the Universe • “the most precious waste in the firmament”: Richard Fortey, Life: An Unauthorised Biography • “The planet is alive”: Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement and The Nutmeg’s Curse • iron oxide, the seed and the egg: Reg Morrison, Australia: Land Beyond Time • the true green revolution: Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey • expanding grasslands: Vincent Carruthers, Cradle of Life • distinctive in its fire regimes and mammalian pollinators: Stephen Pyne, Burning Bush • conditions of biodiversity: Tim Flannery, The Future Eaters • Sahul and the last ice age: Billy Griffiths, Deep Time Dreaming • conserving whole ecosystems: Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe, Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? • “each Ship like another Noah’s Ark”: First Fleet surgeon George Worgan in Grace Karskens, People of the River • agrarian social experiment: Grace Karskens, The Colony • guns, germs and steel: Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel • “the deserted aboriginal feel of untilled earth”: George Farwell, Cape York to the Kimberleys • “the true, northern hemisphere”: Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus • “a blank space on the map”: Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia • a whispering in their hearts: Henry Reynolds, This Whispering in Our Hearts • “the Iliad and Odyssey of Australia”: Noel Pearson, A Rightful Place • “a bold mix of the Dreamings”: Alexis Wright, The Swan Book • “we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood”: The Uluru Statement 2017 • a great acceleration: John McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration • “the heartbeat of the planet”: Will Steffen • the new age of fire: Stephen Pyne, The Pyrocene.