Tuesday P2: In search of deep time

Over the last 50 years or so, and at an increasing speed, our knowledge as white Australians, of the real history of this continent has undergone a profound change, such that our understanding of Indigenous culture and life prior to white settlement, now bears little resemblance to what was once believed to be historically true. Some sense of the extraordinary scale of this change is captured in this conversation between the historian, Billy Griffiths and his Indigenous colleague, Darryl Pappin:

(Billy)  ‘It’s amazing how the dating of Aboriginal occupation in Australia went from a few thousand years in the 1950’s to 25,000 years in the 1960’s, then 40,000 years, and now maybe even 60,000 years.’

‘And it’s a lot more than that’ Darryl smiles at me. ‘It goes up and up and up until forever.’

‘Isn’t 60,000 years pretty much forever?’ I reply. ‘I find it hard to even fathom that number.’

Darryl drives silently, as if to say, ‘Well, no, 60,000 years isn’t forever.’

I gaze out across the vast, flat landscape and make a mental note: I need to start thinking on a different scale.

And furthermore, not only do we now know that there were at least 65,000 years of continuous Indigenous occupation of this continent (tearing apart the lie of terra nullius), but the long held and politically convenient belief that Indigenous Australians were simply nomadic hunter gatherers has also been exposed as a myth. In fact, ‘Aboriginal people possessed sophisticated farming, fishing and land management skills as would be noted by explorers such as Sturt and Mitchell, who observed Indigenous Australian harvesting grain, storing crops, tilling and terracing the land.’ Or, in the words of Indigenous historian, Bruce Pascoe, ‘If we look (hard) at the evidence (we can’t help but acknowledge now) that Aboriginal people did build houses, did build dams, did sow, irrigate and till the land, did sew their clothes, and did construct a system of pan-continental government that generated (incredibly long lasting) peace and prosperity.’

In the light of these hugely significant new historical understandings, the focus of this panel conversation, will be on deepening our knowledge of aspects of this rich and complex history of pre-white settlement Australia, in thinking about exploring ways in which this knowledge can find a larger and more effective space in the learning of our students, and in considering what the implications are for us as non-Indigenous Australians in terms of our own problematic sense of place and belonging. At a time, when the previous Federal Government saw fit to shut the door on the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which drew attention to the ‘torment of (Indigenous) powerlessness’, this conversation could not be more necessary and timely.


Greg Houghton

Greg Houghton is the Deputy Principal at Luther College. He has had a close association with VATE over many years. His active involvement has included the conceptualising, organising and chairing of numerous panels and critical conversations at VATE conferences.




Billy Griffiths

Dr Billy Griffiths is an historian and research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University. He is the author of The China Breakthrough (2012) and most recently, Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia (2018), which was shortlisted for a number of awards, and won the 2018 John Mulvaney Book Award, the 2019 Ernest Scott Prize, and Book of the Year at the 2019 NSW Premier's Literary Awards. Australian historian Mark McKenna said of Deep Time Dreaming, ‘Once every generation a book comes along that marks the emergence of a powerful new literary voice and shifts our understanding of the nation’s past…. Read it, it will change the way you see Australian History’.

Lynette Russell

Professor Lynette Russell is the Director of the Monash Indigenous Study Centre at Monash University. She investigated her own Indigenous heritage in her memoir, A Little Bird Told Me (2002), and has subsequently researched and published widely and extensively in Indigenous and Encounter history, and Postcolonialism. She has written or edited twelve books, including Savage Imaginings : Historical and Contemporary Constructions of Australian Aboriginalities (2001) and Roving Mariners : Australian Aboriginal Whalers and Sealers in the Southern Oceans, 1790 -1870 (2012).