RESEARCH | Territories & Pathways

Posted on 07/03/2013


Here are some extracts from research completed for Aboriginal and Cultural Heritage Assessments produced last year. Over a few projects, I endeavoured to consider the interweave of geography and history with a view to recognising that sites alone are not representative of the Aboriginal view of land and culture. In fact, I think a focus on sites simply affirms the colonial discourse of fragmented Aboriginal occupation and lost Aboriginal knowledge. There is also a need to consider territory, topography and pathways in terms of nomadic and territorial life. There are also connective songlines that resonate across larger expanses of land and are probably indicative of topology.

Last month, John and I heard historian Bill Gammage talk about Aboriginal land management and fire farming practices. His recent book The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia argues that the original inhabitants shaped the land by creating neat hunting grasslands fringed by bush through complex, planned land management. See This kind of historical account makes it all the more important for documents such as cultural maps and Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Assessments (used in resource and development projects) to account for more than sites, as fragments, and consider the relational dimensions of a complex history of land use. What emerged from my research, particularly in adopting a geographic outlook to the historical and cultural research (one of the bonuses, perhaps, of having studied across cultural studies, local history and urban planning), was a realisation that the land was viewed, from the historical and archeological perspective, as an amalgam of sites rather than a territory.

In his study of the Hunter Valley, Glenn Albrecht states the landscape and the rivers of the region, like those of elsewhere, were all named by Aboriginal people with many of the names lost during surveying and settlement. Stories about the landscape connected these features like a map, as geography or topography. In 1834, Lang noted:

Indeed, every remarkable point of land, every hill and valley in the territory, has its native name, given, as far as can be ascertained from particular instances, from some remarkable feature of the particular locality (Lang, 1834) …

In recognising significant sites, it is vital to consider the landscape beyond them and the connections between them. Paul Taçon (2005) explains that one of the problems of current approaches to cultural heritage is “the sectioning off of sacred sites from Dreaming Tracks and the larger landscapes they are inextricably linked to”. This includes the severing of pathways, although many pathways remain in use today as roads. For example, because bora rings can be located within constellations of significant sites and because of the nomadic life of the original inhabitants, pathways were an important part of the cultural landscape that make the relationships between clans and sites explicit. But even nomadism becomes overstated and stereotyped: as there are accounts of near permanent settlements and architectures in part of this country are overlooked, relocation could be warranted no more frequently than seasonally and was based on a traditional approaches to placemaking. At the Asia Pacific Triennial 7 opening event Paul Memmot addressed the theme of ‘Temporary Structures’, saying that Aboriginal placemaking is part of Aboriginal economy, a hybrid economy. Taçon (2005) explains that:

The Aboriginal approach … generally … [focuses] on relationships and connections first. Thus landscapes are viewed from a broad historical perspective first, with areas of interest or speciality within noted next. It is very important in this context to explain the connections between places, whether they be stone quarries, places of food resources, sites to be avoided or whatever, in order to more fully understand them. This understanding can be crucial for survival, especially in times of increased environmental or political change.

It is generally accepted that successful survey and exploration expeditions were reliant on Aboriginal knowledge with colonial roads constructed over Aboriginal pathways – such pathways originally facilitated intertribal and intratribal (recognising that some tribes were comprised of multiple sub-clans, each with discreet territories) congress for ceremony, commerce and conflict.

… In a methodological innovation, archaeologist Taçon (2005) proposes using the detailed Dreaming Track landscape model of the north to reinterpret cultural landscapes of the south (such as the Blue Mountain Region). He notes that “the challenge is to do this in a reliable manner using archaeological (especially rock-art), geological, ethno-historical and contemporary oral-history indicators”:

It is important to do this for many reasons. Besides social-justice and cultural-heritage implications, such an exercise can help all of us view southern landscapes in new ways. Instead of seeing the south-east just as a patchwork of parcels of land, cities, towns, farms, parks, industrial estates, residences, quarter-acre blocks and so forth, separated by concepts of ownership and demarcation – titles, deeds, fences, roads and modern political boundaries – we will begin to see the longstanding relationships between places and the chains of connection that affect all of them.

For Taçon, and the groups he is working with, the benefit of such an approach will be enhanced ecosystem, landscape and cultural heritage preservation, management and interpretation. In other words, the foundations for strong communities and economies as well as necessary for the assertion of strong place narratives. Without recognising pathways, all that remains are disconnected and fragmented sites and artefacts that bear a diminished relationship to the lived and living experience of dreaming and culture.