This weekend, SBS television will be showing a documentary on Aboriginal Australia, The First Australians. This sounds like a worthy and fascinating project and I will be checking it out - but will it be an honest appraisal?
The first question that Australians seem to struggle with is how long Aborigines have been in Australia. The oldest reliable and agreed upon results from radio-carbon dating carried out from sites around Australia is around 40,000 years before the present.
40,000 years is a mighty impressive figure - meaning at least 2,000 generations of people have trodden the earth of this continent. All of which makes it puzzling that some in the documentary are claiming 80,000-100,000 years - which simply cannot be corroborated. It really shouldn't be that hard to ask an archaeologist about the truth - and let it sit at that, at least until someone digs up something older.
This brings us to another question. How is it that, as we are told, Aborigines are the oldest continuous culture on Earth? It was mentioned in the first line of Kevin Rudd's apology, so it must be true, right?
Certainly, 40,000 year old bones have been found in Australia, but 160,000 year-old human bones have been found in Ethiopia. The discovery of bones does not indicate a continuous culture - unless you assume, with a somewhat racist sweep, that the culture of Aborigines probably didn't change because they were incapable of it. How is it that Ethopian culture stopped but Aboriginal culture continued? Frankly, it is unlikely, given the current understanding that humans emerged from Africa, that Aborigines are the oldest continuous living culture.
When does a culture stop? What does a continuous culture mean? Probably very little if you were to ask an expert.
So, if this documentary can't get these facts right - what facts can they get right? It's not a great start. The known facts of Aboriginal history are impressive - so why do they have to lie about them in Episode 1 - and what does it tell us about less obvious facts they are yet to broadcast?