Sunday, September 26, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: The Peopling of Australia

So if you read last week's Idea Garage Sale you already know why I can't write about the first people in Australia; but oddly enough I have a much clearer idea of the plot for this one.

Probably this is because I am less intimate with it. Since I have a much vaguer idea of the current state of evidence concerning early human populations in Australia than of the Americas, my mind feels less constraint in spinning wild fantasies. And this one's going to look pretty wild.

The way I understand it, the two big problems in understanding how Australia was populated are that secure dating of the scant evidence uncovered so far is even rarer than in the Americas and that, although seafaring technology would seem to be essential to the process, surviving culture - oral and physical - gives no evidence of any such thing existing. If I understand correctly, the native people of Australia in historic times didn't even exploit any coastal resources and there's no sign that they ever did - none of the huge shell middens that are a staple of archeology every where else. It that's true, it's peculiar to a degree I find hard to contemplate.

Now, the thing to remember about ancient people is, that they were us. They were just as smart, they just had few giant shoulders to stand on. Give them a problem, and they had the same mental, emotional, and physical means to solve it, and fewer distractions. They also had concerns beyond bare existence.

Archeologists are practical people and don't like to extrapolate on that second point. They prefer to focus on stuff that left tangible traces, which leads them to focus on survival strategies. But who do you know who is focused solely on survival strategies? Who in history ever did? Politics, the struggle for status, the distraction of sports and games, invention for the fun of it, gossip, mooning after love, depression, exaltation, personal rivalry, egocentric interpretation of the world, fanaticism, pointless arguments, geniuses, fools, leaders, followers, dreams, visions - these we have always had with us.

So here's my vision: We have a coastal population in southeast Asia exploiting marine resources in the usual way. They have a maritime technology that includes small boats suitable for short trips or for long coasting voyages, which allows them to exploit the resources of islands beyond the Wallace Line. They also have two people in their population who will change the world for them forever - a technological genius, and a visionary.

The technological genius invents a boat that can go farther and haul more than anyone thought possible. Geniuses do this - check out the history of invention. I don't know enough about boats to go into detail about the nature of his/her invention, but if I were going to write this story I'd be able to find out. Let's say the invention is the outrigger canoe. Everybody's pleased and excited. An outrigger building craze arises. People compete to build better, bigger outriggers, to go further in them; they have races; they challenge each other to bring back more or bigger or better or stranger fish. Certain segments of the population don't participate. It all seems risky to them. They'd rather stick to what they know.

Then the visionary has a dream in which he sees a paradise on earth, lying beyond the farthest islands, teeming with every good thing and hitherto beyond the reach of mankind. Maybe their religion already posits such a place as their heaven, the place their loved ones go when they die, and the visionary's dream convinces him that he has been called to take the Chosen People there while living.

Human history is peppered with such visionaries. Most modern religions are based on them. It's hard to tell, from outside, which are self-serving frauds, which are delusional, which are benign, whether anybody ever really got in touch with a Divine Being. This book would have to explore such questions; but for this precis I don't have to. I'd have plenty of historical models for my Pleistocene Exodus, however I chose to play out the plot in detail.

The upshot would be an armada of outriggers heading out into the unknown, led by a Charismatic Leader who might be the visionary, or might be someone influenced by him. This Charismatic Leader would have all the strengths and weaknesses of modern Charismatic Leaders; and like them, he would claim to control destiny, and discover that vast exterior forces have more to do with his success or failure than anything else. He persuades entire family groups to sail, or paddle, or whatever, for paradise; and entire family groups are wiped out when the weather hits.

I could take my pick of weather conditions. People grown arrogant with confidence in their own technology or their standing with the divine are easy to kill because they don't pay close attention. Tsunami or storm, the paradise-seeking armada is devastated, most of them drowned, survivors and the remains of their broken boats strewn along the shore of Australia.

Australia would look different in the Pleistocene, but it would still not be the Paradise they were seeking. Where are their dead loved ones? Especially the ones that wouldn't have died if they hadn't come on this cockamamie expedition. If the Charismatic Leader survived, he would experience a vicious backlash - not only against him, but against everything associated with him. Although many of the shipwrecked would set to work trying to build new canoes so they can travel home and report, a strong core would not only kill Charismatic Leader, but would destroy boats as fast as they were built. Man is not meant, declares the leader of the new faction, to meddle with the sea at all. We have offended the powers that be and must ditch all that. The ocean is too powerful. Leave it alone.

Perhaps some collective shame sets in for things done under the aegis of the leader. Perhaps there is a period of chaos during which everyone does things they would rather forget. When a new generation is born, no one speaks about the past. Different skill sets are passed on. New visionaries arise, with new visions. The past is erased.

If I were Australian and could write this, no doubt it would be modified considerably by research. Although, in light of what I know about humans and history, every stage of it is possible, collectively it's, by archeological standards, a pie-in-the-sky, sensationalistic story. And knowing more about Australian myth and archeology would no doubt modify it a lot.

But I have't looked into it, because Australia is way too far out of my comfort zone for me to ever write this.

1 comment:

  1. I love this Peni! It's no wonder you have to give your ideas away!